Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sylvie's Love is a pleasant rebuke of classic Hollywood norms

Sylvie's Love really was perfectly timed in its Christmas Day release date. At the end of the year, I'm always catching up on critically-acclaimed titles from the preceding year, many of them grim & heavy affairs. 2020 was no exception in this regard. Now, those can be great movies, no question, but once you watch a bunch of them in quick succession, you begin to crave something lighter. In comes Sylvie's Love, a small-scale romantic-drama that aims to homage old-school Hollywood movies and utilize the charms of its two lead actors. The perfect counterbalance to all the recent bleak films I've been watching. 

The story of Sylvie's Love begins in New York City in 1957. Aspiring musician Robert Holloway  (Nnamdi Asomugha) begins working at a record store that already employs Sylvie Parker (Tessa Thompson). What starts out as just a job to earn extra cash in between gigs soon becomes something deeper for both of them. However, their potential relationship is complicated from the get-go by the fact that Sylvie is already engaged to marry another man. There's also the fact that Holloway soon finds himself set for a high-profile gig in Paris, France. The two of them just can't stay together. But that doesn't mean their romance won't continue to fester, including when they reunite five years later.

Writer/director Eugene Ashe has concocted an interesting challenge for Sylvie's Love, which is to make a film that could easily fit into the Golden Age of Hollywood. This means the production adheres to Hays Code restrictions, no strong language or explicit on-screen depicts of sexual activity are shown on-screen. But the best way Sylvie's Love tips its hat to the past is how, much like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, the production chooses to hew to the visual style of Douglas Sirk. There's nary a set here that doesn't pop with vibrant colors and the period-era costumes are similarly awash in bright hues. 

It all looks spectacular and makes for a perfect visual accompaniment to the lush emotional quality of Sylvie's Love. Ashe's screenplay refreshingly has no bones about just being a straightforward romance story. This means he doesn't hesitate to practically paint the whole movie in overt passion. Ashe's direction compliments his writing in how he just lets the emotions between the characters serve as a current that dictates the trajectory of everything in a given scene. The delightful chemistry between Thompson and Asomugha makes this intimate aesthetic especially entertaining. Just watching the two actors converse on a staircase proves engaging. 

Ashe's work on Sylvie's Love is admirably confident enough to not feel the need to add winking touches to its classical sensibility towards romance. However, this isn't just an empty pastiche of older movies. The unique qualities inherent to the perspectives of Black people in the middle of the 20th-century get ample amounts of time in the spotlight. Particularly interesting is Sylvie's pursuit of a job as a TV producer, an occupation that's off-limits for most women of color. Watching her rise through the ranks and reasserting her own competence in the workplace provides some of the best moments in Sylvie's Love, especially since, just by showcasing these experiences, Ashe is in fact commenting on classic Hollywood romance movies.

The subtle commentary being offered here mainly revolves around how Sylvie would be a background player in a classic melodrama from Douglas Sirk or any other prominent American filmmaker of the '50s or '60s. Despite Sylvie's Love showing how rich stories like Sylvie's are, they were always cut out of the fabric of Hollywood filmmaking. Now, Ashe is reinserting these perspectives back into the tapestry of Hollywood's history. Sylvie's Love smuggles a pretty powerful reimagining of vintage Hollywood into an easily-digestible package. Even if you don't want to consider its connections to Hollywood's past, that's OK. Sylvie's Love offers up plenty of surface-level pleasures to make it an enjoyable watch.

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