Cannes John Bleasdale

Cannes 2019: Sibyl review

★★★☆☆

Movies love certain professions and psychotherapy is certainly one. They have to listen to people’s problems while (usually) masking their own issues. From Richard Burton in Equus to Billy Crystal in Analyse This, there’s an undoubted attraction to a job which involves lots of listening to other people’s stories. The same goes for Justine Triet’s darkly comic Sibyl.

Virginie Efira plays the titular psychotherapist who decides – much against the advice of her literary agent – to downsize her practice in order to write a new novel. She has a family with small children, which means that the writer’s block she immediately encounters is not helpful. Things take an interesting turn when she hesitantly sees a new patient who calls in floods of tears. Actress Madeleine (Adèle Exarchopoulos) has found out she is pregnant and she doesn’t know whether to keep the baby or not.

Madeleine is supposed to be shooting a new film with the would-be father, Igor (Gaspar Uliel), on Stromboli, the volcanic island made famous in cinema by Roberto Rossellini’s eponymous film. Sibyl’s first reaction is to get shot of another distraction but remembering her agent’s advice to use something real, she starts recording the sessions and suddenly inspiration strikes. Called onto the set to help the emotionally fragile Madeleine, she is increasingly relied upon to keep the nightmare production going as Igor and Madeleine cordially loathe each other. It, of course, doesn’t help that the director Mika (Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller) was also involved with Igor.

And yet Triet interlaces the story with darker strands. Sibyl is a recovering alcoholic who, according to narrative grammar, will at some point inevitably backslide. She recalls a former lover (Niels Schneider) in flashback throughout the film and it is clear that her story has parallels with Madeleine’s. And even her own mental fragility, which is largely played for laughs (on reading the manuscript of her book an early reader responds to her autobiographical character as “a real psycho”), occasionally dips its toe into tragedy. A drunken attempt to bumrush a stage and sing an Italian love song is both fun and horrific. Emotional trauma does not necessarily make for good art.

French comedy revolving around the bourgeoisie in crisis ought to be a genre to itself. It lives in as fictional a universe as Captain America and Iron Man. The film-within-a-film doesn’t pretend to any verisimilitude; the publishing industry is an unserious joke and even psychiatry is milked mainly for laughs, but Efira is a dominant and compelling presence and Sibyl is frequently funny. Ultimately, it never quite squares the circle of the comedy and the pain, but Triet is a sophisticated filmmaker and this – her third feature – is further proof of great talent.

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty