Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is in the process of giving up her job as a psychotherapist to go back to writing novels. But as she gradually relieves herself of nearly all her clients, Sybil is hit with a bad case of writer’s block. She has no idea what her new novel is going to be about, or of any interesting scenes with which she can fill the pages.
Enter Margot (Adele Exarchopoulos), an actor who is about to go and shoot a film on a volcanic island. But she’s pregnant and doesn’t know whether or not to keep the foetus. And the father is Igor, her co-star in the film. And Igor is married to the film’s director. Sensing that even she can find a story in all this, Sibyl starts taping their conversations.
As Margot’s existential crisis deepens, Sibyl is summoned to the island to negotiate between the actress, her ex and his wife, the increasingly manic Mika (Sandra Hüller). As the actors don’t gel and Mika gets increasingly agitated by the fleeing time, she loses control. At one stage she jumps off the boat in which they’re filming and swims to the shore, leaving Sibyl in charge of the film.
Sibyl, the film, played at Cannes this year, and a number of critics just didn’t get on board. I can understand this, but their general beef seems to have been that the film was too silly. My take is that it isn’t silly enough. I didn’t need all the backstory and flashbacks explaining how Sibyl had become what she is. She’s interesting and complicated enough now to just sit back and watch her flounder.
I’m also not so sure about most of the sex scenes which seem somewhat gratuitous, with one exception. Mika has jumped ship, and Sibyl is directing a love scene between Margot and Igor’s characters. Did I mention that during her brief visit to the island Sibyl has also managed to sleep with Igor?
Mika has already tried several takes of this scene. But this time it somehow works. Igor and Margot actually look as if they might like each other. More than that, they’re passionate. Other sex scenes in the film featured a degree of nudity that may be expected but isn’t really necessary. In this one, they’re fully clothed, but full of longing. This is all deeply uncomfortable, what with Mika’s fling with Igor while she is acting in loco parentis Margot.
The psychiatrist who is keeping everyone else’s life in order while their’s is falling apart is a familiar trope in a wide range of culture from Analyse This to Frasier. And yet while the Crane brothers are played for laughs, there is something tragic about Sibyl. Having said this, she’s not beyond pulling the odd party piece like drunkenly seizing the mic from the live music act before being bundled in a taxi and finding that she’s so out of it that she’s unable to get out of the lift.
Added to this, the supporting acting is superlative. Exarchopoulos and Hüller are arguably the most accomplished French and German female actors of their generation, and they are never less than excellent, even when they are playing people who are not good at their job – Margot struggles to convince in love scenes with a man with whom she has a history and Mika is just batshit crazy, but superbly so.
In short, the film is a glorious mess. It barely holds together, keeps on wildly swinging in strange directions and you’re never quite sure if the whole thing is going to collapse soon. And it is all the better for this.