Director – Eugene Ashe
Cast – Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria, Lance Reddick, Jemima Kirke
Sylvie’s Love, the new romantic melodrama on Amazon Prime Video, opens with a luxurious title sequence — the sort of title sequence that immediately evokes memories of a very particular era in moviemaking. Every actor is given an individual card, with the names of their characters displayed in bold yellow font, as if they are all playing notable historical figures.
Filmmakers these days underestimate the power of a good title sequence. It’s a dying art. One of the stealth services that it offers, among others, is to immediately convey the tone of the film, and lure the audience in even before the story has begun. The opening title sequence in Sylvie’s Love, which tips its hat to the 60s, does both these things.
Watch the Sylvie’s Love trailer here
But once our attentions have been attracted and the film’s retro tone advertised, Sylvie’s Love finds itself so wrapped up in its stylistic shenanigans that it often forgets about simple matters such as character development. Not only does it visually evoke a bygone era in filmmaking — it’s shot on grainy, 16 mm film — it also follows, a tad too religiously, the storytelling style of classic Hollywood romances. And it does this, unlike La La Land or the recent Mank, without putting a contemporary spin on the material.
Directed by Eugene Ashe, the splashy Sundance film is similar to Damien Chazelle’s masterpiece in many ways. But it also addresses some of the criticisms that were directed at that musical.
Like La La Land, it tells the star-crossed love story of an up-and-coming jazz musician and a young woman who aspires to work in the entertainment industry. They meet at her father’s record store, where he finds a day job. In the evenings, he plays the saxophone with his band at the local jazz clubs. But this time, critically, both protagonists are Black.
Tessa Thompson plays Sylvie, who one day dreams of running her own television show, but doesn’t know if she’ll be allowed to. She is at a disadvantage, both racially and because of her gender. But Robert, on the other hand, is operating in a world dominated by Black men. This brings its own unique challenges.
Sparks fly as the bond over the latest Miles Davis album and sneak quick conversations under the nose of Sylvie’s father. Before you know it, Robert’s asking her to come watch him play. But true to its nature as an old-school melodrama, the film puts its protagonists through their paces with a series of contrived setbacks, the first of which is Sylvie’s impending marriage.
The film offers a refreshing perspective into the internal class structures of the Black community. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe it as a fairytale. Sylvie is, in many ways, a princess in waiting — a prominent member of the community, her future carefully mapped out for her. She can’t be messing around with an Aladdin-like street rat.
And like an old Disney film, there are a few ethical concerns you might have with certain events. For instance, by getting involved with Robert, Sylvie is, after all, cheating on her fiance. And when, in setback number two, Robert gets an offer to go to Paris with his band, not once does it cross his mind to stay back to be with her. Instead, he puts her under pressure when he says ‘we’re all that matters’ and asks her to come with him.
As it turns out, the film’s gender politics are stuck in the past, too. And that’s the main problem with it. It’s too beholden to outdated narrative devices to appeal in any sort of way to a discerning contemporary audience. It’s all very cute when characters say stuff like “Charmed, I’m sure,” and “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” in casual conversation, but the sight of an independent woman chasing a man who turned his back on her is not something that’s easy to wrap your head around.
That being said, one shouldn’t overlook its contributions to Black cinema. Along with Pixar’s Soul and the tremendous Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sylvie’s Love is the third film this month to highlight the artistic achievements of the underrepresented culture. Watch it as a part of a warm Christmassy triple-bill, perhaps?