The final film in the Claude Autant-Laura box set Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (for our other reviews look here), Sylvie et le Fantome is the most famous of the four due to its clever visual effects and a starring role for future beloved director Jacques Tati. Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of “le Fantome.” As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.
Sylvie et le Fantome is a lovely romantic fantasy involving a lovelorn girl on her birthday and an assortment of ghosts, both real and hired. Sylvie (played by Odette Joyeux, who stars in every entry in this series) is a spiritual predecessor of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, a dreamy girl who has convinced herself she in love with the ghost of her grandmother’s long-deceased lover, Alain de Francigny, who died in a duel for her honor. Although Sylvie’s once-wealthy family lives in a large castle, they are reduced to selling off their antiques to an art dealer. In both an effort to raise money and wean Sylvie from her impossible infatuation, her father schemes to sell of an heirloom painting of Alain from under Sylvie’s nose using the house’s secret tunnels. During an encounter in the tunnels, the son of the art dealer develops a crush on Sylvie and unintentionally rattles Alain from his long-slumber. Now freed, Alain, played by Tati using some very clever visual effects, notices and appreciates Sylvie’s affection. He gently teases her and her relatives with simple ghost tricks—blowing out their matches, preventing Sylvie from blowing out her birthday candles, etc. At the same time that Alain and the art dealer’s son, Frederick, are sneaking around the castle, a reform-school dropout turned petty thief has also managed to break in, but becomes trapped when the police begin combing the countryside for him.
Sylvie’s father gets the idea to hire an actor to play Alain de Francingy at Sylvie’s birthday as a fun midnight surprise during an adorable scene where his butler reads him bedtime ghost stories. When Frederick and the thief, Ramure (aka Branch, “It’s my winter name”), get caught by Sylvie’s father he simply thinks they were sent by the actor’s agency. By the time Sylvie’s birthday starts, we’re up to three fake ghosts and one real ghost all playing overlapping tricks and having separate encounters with Sylvie. Romance and ghostly hijinks ensue as Sylvie becomes confused about which version of Alain’s ghost she’s truly in love with, while all four “phantoms” (including the real one) compete for her affection.
Sylvie et le Fantome does not offer the frothy costuming of Le Mariage de Chiffon and Lettres d’Amour, nor the emotional depth of Douce, but it is still a playful delight. Despite the sophisticated effects and the overwrought comedy of errors plot, this film seems like the only one of the four that could work as a play. It has the same nimble wordplay as the other three, but a greater number of intimate moments between characters that would translate well to the stage. Overall, this was the least political, but most poetic of the series. Perhaps it was the cachet of Jaques Tati, but it was probably the utter-adorability of Puppy Ghost that cemented this film as my favorite in the box set.