Sibyl (2020)

I’m becoming increasingly tickled by the Charlie Kaufman-esque story template in which Writer’s Block leads an increasingly unraveled protagonist down an absurd rabbit hole at their own peril. Between Ismael’s Ghosts, Staying Vertical, and now Sybil, France has gradually emerged as the #1 exporter of these bizarro psychological thrillers about frustrated writers, which rarely earn great critical accolades despite constructing some of the most unpredictable, confounding plots in cinema. Overall, Sibyl doesn’t revolutionize the structure or purpose of the Writer’s Block thriller in any significant way, but it does reshape the (admittedly loose) genre’s usual tone by casting a woman in the central writer’s role. Typically, these post-Kaufman psych-thrillers profile Macho Academic types in a moment of Mid-Life Crisis, so it’s a relief to see the genre shaken up with a woman’s internal fixations & sexual urges for a change. Otherwise, Sibyl behaves just as you’d expect given the Writer’s Block-driven downward spiral its protagonist suffers. It’s just an acquired taste I’ve personally acquired with glee.

The titular Sibyl is a frustrated psychiatrist who’s decided to pull back from the professional demands of her clientele to re-focus on writing novels – only to be confronted by the dreaded Blank Page. She’s then pulled back into her psychiatry practice by a new patient in crisis, an actress whose affair with a famous co-star is causing an on-set meltdown (as the man is also sleeping with the film’s director). Sibyl verbally protests that she cannot become involved in this young, chaotic woman’s life, but she’s clearly addicted to the drama that unfolds. Her avoidance of writing a new novel fades as she chooses to write about this soon-to-be-famous (or soon-to-implode) actress under a pseudonym, becoming more & more involved in the young woman’s life under the guise of “research.” It’s clearly addictive behavior that’s linked directly to her addiction to work, her addiction to past sexual partners, and—most explicitly—her alcoholism. At the start of their relationship, the psychiatrist is protesting that she cannot become involved in the actress’s personal drama. By the end, she’s practically directing the movie herself as her life falls apart outside the boundaries of her newest, singular obsession.

As with the best of these Writer’s Block psych-thrillers, Sibyl is excitingly playful in its style & narrative structure. It begins with a chilling piano score & 70s grindhouse typeface, as if it were a remake of Halloween instead of an intellectual drama. It also later teases swerves into De Palma-era erotic thriller territory, but those genre throwback touches are more stylistic flavor than they are narrative substance. The narrative itself is more guided by tabloidish obsession with “celebrity” criminals like Robert Durst & Casey Anthony than anything recalling De Palma or Carpenter, to the point where Sibyl’s only connection to those genre traditions is in her shameless voyeurism (most amusingly depicted in her late-night laptop binges on junky clickbait headlines). The movie itself is tickled with the farcical adultery configurations of its central cast, but it’s most concerned with creating a fractured portrait of its doomed alcoholic writer as she spirals out. The sordid details of her involvement in her patient’s life is less important than the addictive, self-destructive impulses that lead her there – freeing the movie to have a laugh at her exponentially absurd downfall even when it’s at its most excruciatingly grim.

The only major fault with Sibyl is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions. Beyond its obvious Kaufman ancestry, Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals. The movie works best when it’s clearly having fun with the absurdity of its unraveling premise, like when it frames Sibyl pensively vaping out a window in a Writerly way or in its casting of Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller as scene-stealing comic relief. It also takes the sexual urges & self-destructive behavioral patterns of its protagonist seriously enough that its central conflict never implodes into comic oblivion either. We’re fully invested in the manic downfall of this frustrated writer, even if not quite as much as she’s involved in her patient’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Staying Vertical (2017)

Every now & then you’ll encounter a strange picture about writer’s block written by someone who’s obviously suffering writer’s block. These movies are usually penned by Charlie Kauffman, but in this case it’s Stranger By the Lake’s Alain Guiraudi who’s driven mad by the blank page into making something deeply, surreally frustrated. Staying Vertical is an abstract nightmare of mistakes & obligations haunting a frustrated writer as he avoids his professional responsibilities at the expense of everything he holds dear in life. Our creatively stumped protagonist starts his journey with a nice job & total freedom. His biggest worries are being rejected while cruising for sex or becoming consumed with boredom. By the conclusion, just a year later, he’s homeless, destitute, a public pariah, an estranged father, and literally surrounded by wolves. The events that lead him down that path can be logically explained in a linear progression, but that logic falls apart once you apply them to a larger metaphorical meaning. It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudi needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.

I have no problem admitting that some of Stranger by the Lake’s immediate appeal was its explicit depiction of casual gay sex, a kind of shock value transgression that paired wonderfully with its emotional thriller beats and thematic explorations of dangerous intimacy & loneliness. Staying Vertical boasts a lot of the same in-your-face vulgarity, including hardcore intergenerational sex, close-up shots of genitalia & human birth, and bizarre dialogue like, “Even if I wanted to, I can’t sleep with my son’s grandpa.” It’s far from a nonstop bacchanal of Kuso-esque perversions, though. Mostly we watch our writer’s block-afflicted protagonist drift through the French countryside, a major city, and a village in-between, racking up a mounting weight of responsibilities & obligations as he avoids the one thing he should be doing at the outset. In his aimless wandering through an unfulfilling life he establishes an absurd scenario where there’s essentially five people in all of France and they all want something from him that he’s unprepared to deliver. His obligations surround him like a pack of wolves, a point that’s driven home when he’s literally surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Of course, this kind of purposeless, for-its-own-sake shock value & absurdity is going to strike many people as incoherent nonsense. The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy. I can’t say I wouldn’t have rather have Guiraudi’s fearless, straightforward story about wolves, sheepherding, and the state of farm life in the face of modernized industry, but the extreme, absurdist self-reflection he delivers in Staying Vertical instead is fascinating, occasionally haunting stuff. I just hope he’s okay.

-Brandon Ledet