'Sibyl': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Portrait of the artist as a woman under the influence.

Virginie Efira ('Elle') headlines French writer-director Justine Triet's third feature, which premiered in competition in Cannes.

For her ambitious third feature, budding Gallic auteur Justine Triet tries her hand at a meta-psychological thriller that’s something like a film within the making-of-a-film within a crime novel within an erotic dream within a therapy session run amok.

It’s about as French as you can get, to a point that feels borderline absurd in places, and yet Triet handles the material gracefully and altogether skillfully, directing star Virginie Efira to one of her most impressive all-encompassing performances to date. Premiering in competition in Cannes — a major step up for a filmmaker whose first feature played in the ACID sidebar only six years ago — Sibyl should see sufficient buzz in France and pickups abroad, helping boost Triet’s international profile.

Providing a welcome female viewpoint on a genre that’s been all-too often tackled by men, from Brian De Palma to Paul Verhoeven and even to Woody Allen (Triet cites his 1988 film Another Woman as a reference in the press notes), Sibyl is at once a sultry, suspense-ridden drama, and, like the director’s previous features, the frenzied profile of a woman juggling professional and personal needs with extreme difficulty.

As the titular anti-heroine, Efira (who also headlined Triet’s 2016 romantic-comedy In Bed With Victoria) plays a psychologist and mother of two who decides to ditch most of her patients to become a writer. Desperately lacking inspiration for her first book, she soon finds a godsend in Margot (a perfectly cast Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color), a young actress who stumbles into her practice in the midst of a major crisis, begging Sibyl to help her through her upcoming movie shoot.

Seeing an opportunity for prime narrative fodder, Sibyl begins to secretly record their sessions and then finds herself engulfed in the distraught girl’s life, to the point where shrink, patient, novel and film production start blending together in troubling ways. As the different plot points converge and overlap, the various fictive elements of the book and movie-in-progress gradually give way to Sibyl’s own inner demons, which are unleashed by her dubious new undertaking and risk taking her down with it.

Co-written with Arthur Harari (Dark Inclusion), the script is an ever-changing mood board of storylines, illusions and flashbacks that can feel overwhelming in spots and a bit clichéd in others, as if the filmmakers tossed too many ingredients into the pot without any filter or moderation. But showing an admirably steady hand with what could seem like shaky material, Triet manages to build a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of a talented woman under the influence (to cite another reference that pops up when Sibyl’s alcoholism manifests itself) who wants to have it all — career, family, creative inspiration and a good sex life — and winds up falling victim to her own ambition.

It’s hard not to see a reflection of the director herself in this narrative of shifting mirrors and collapsing Chinese boxes, especially when the plot changes gears to focus on the film that Margot is shooting and that Sibyl becomes more and more involved with, paying an extended visit to set that turns into a total disaster. Made by another woman, Mika (played with deadpan hilarity by Toni Erdmann star Sandra Huller), the movie — a dark romance set in picturesque Sicily that brings to mind films like Contempt or Plein Soleil — is like the art house doppleganger of Sibyl’s chaotic real life, with Margot playing the lover of the ravishing Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), an actor with whom she’s also having an off-camera affair.

The fact that Margot is pregnant with Igor’s baby reflects Sibyl’s own problematic past, involving another sex bomb of a lover (Niels Schneider), and so the echo chamber keeps resounding until it nearly does her in. That Triet manages to combine all of these disparate elements into something like a statement on contemporary female creation, and on the fragile balance between motherhood and art, is a testament to her growing talents as a director who started off making Mumblecore-style shorts and a first feature (Age of Panic) less than a decade ago, and has now moved into deeper, darker and more commercial territory.

Efira, who herself has emerged as a serious talent in films like Verhoeven’s Elle and Joachim Lafosse’s Keep Going after a career in TV comedy, deftly channels Sibyl’s intense hunger for experience — whether her own or that of patients like Margot — and the sour aftertaste it leaves on her personal life, including the testy relationship she has with her attentive homebody of a boyfriend, Etienne (Paul Hamy). The actress plays several roles at the same time — the astute psychologist, the struggling author, the affectionate yet neglectful mom, the fervid lover in two very candid sex scenes — and she does each one extremely well, turning Sibyl’s altered states into a whole that reflects her drive to be many things at once.

Indeed, if Sibyl, the film, gets so out of hand that it verges on a nervous breakdown, yet manages, in the end, to work, it’s perhaps because it deals with the very impossibility of keeping your head together while trying to create something wholly original. Triet seems to be saying that this can be especially tough for a woman hoping to lead a "normal" life and raise children at the same time — that it can nearly ruin her. It’s a much-needed new spin on an old subject, and one that benefits from its fraught and distinctly fragmented female gaze, asking us: What happens when the gaze gazes back?

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, France 2 Cinema, Les Films de Pierre, Page 114, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Scope Pictures
Cast: Virginie Efira, Adele Exarchopoulos, Gaspard Ulliel, Sandra Huller, Laure Calamy, Niels Schneider, Paul Hamy, Arthur Harari
Director: Justine Triet
Screenwriters: Justine Triet, Arthur Harari
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Simon Beaufils
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Laurent Senechal
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: MK2

In French, English, Italian
110 minutes