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SIBYL (2019) review

September 11, 2020


written by: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
produced by: Serge Hayat, Philippe Martin and David Thion
directed by: Justine Triet
rated: not rated
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: September 11, 2020 (virtual cinema & VOD)


When I first read the title of French director Justine Triet’s new film out loud, I immediately thought of Daniel Petrie’s 1976 TV mini-series, “Sybil”, staring Sally Field as a woman who was so scarred from her traumatic past that she developed sixteen personalities. Then I realized the titles are spelled differently. What’s funny is how there’s at least one similarity between the two in that the protagonist of Triet’s film, which she co-wrote with Arthur Harari (an actor she’s directed in her last two features), displays a range of personalities herself throughout the film’s story. What we see doesn’t get into the teens, but there is still a compelling and fascinating character study on display here that show a multi-layered and fully-realized woman, who is as relatable as she is flawed. She’s a passionate woman trying to follow her dreams, yet haunting by her past and conflicted with the decisions of her present. While some may feel like there’s a bit too much packed into “Sibyl”, there are actually three actresses here that definitely steer it all in the direction of worthwhile viewing.



As the film opens, we meet Sibyl (Virginie Efira), who listens to her editor mansplain to her all the challenges she will face as she gets back into writing in order to finally work on getting her book published. She barely gets in a few words in as they sit in a Parisian cafe, most likely internally registering that it would be futile to engage in a reciprocating conversation with the guy. It’s a kind of funny and light scene, but there’s this underlying sense of feeling smothered and a restlessness to escape, something that gradually permeates throughout the film.

Sibyl is a psychotherapist in the process of saying goodbye to her patients and therefore her practice in order to switch gears and get back into writing fiction. It’s a bit of a surprise to her supportive husband Étienne (Paul Hamy), whom she is raising two young children with, and her shrink has his own misgivings considering Sibyl’s history of compulsive behavior and struggles with alcoholism. She plans on hanging on to a select few patients, such as an adolescent boy she plays Monopoly with in her office. But like an assassin or a spy who takes one last assignment, Sibyl gets a call one night from a local healthcare facility and is told there is a potential patient who is desperate for treatment. Somewhat reluctantly, yet with that underlying temptation of feeling needed, Sybil takes on Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos, “Blue is the Warmest Color”) as a patient. Margot is a young acting ingénue trying to build her career and begins her sessions extremely stressed by her current situation, that being the affair she is having with Igor Maleski (Gaspard Ulliel), a famous actor and costar of a big-break movie she’s filming, a guy who at the same time is seeing Mikaela Sanders (Sandra Hüller, “Toni Erdmann”), their director.



Initially, Sibyl tries to remain professionally distant, but she is soon pulled into Margot’s severe insecurity and codependency, recognizing certain familiar behaviors in herself and inevitably using their sessions as fodder for her novel. Instead of really challenging and offering applicable guidance to her patient, their patient/therapist relationship is frayed even further when Margot asks Sybil to help her decide whether or not to get an abortion. Sibyl’s involvement increases, as she is pulled away from her family and asked to fly to the film’s island location (filmed on Stromboli, an idyllic Sicilian island with an active volcano, exquisitely lenses by cinematographer Simon Beaufils), pulling her further away from her family. She goes, convincing herself it’ll be good for her book, but it’s really her own addictive impulses that compel her. As she gets pulled into Margot’s world even further while on the island, Sybil discards any moral or ethical codes and causes more damage to herself and those around her than any good she could’ve potentially provided as a mediator.

Triet and Harari’s screnwriting strengths are in the rich characterization offered, while some of the dialogue is a tad predictable. The story also incorporates a handful of other elements that surround Sibyl’s past and present. There are sensual flashback sequences that ebb and flow in her mind, conjuring scarred emotions for a former lover, Gabriel (Niels Schneider), as well as present scenes with her somewhat estranged sister, Édith (Laure Calamy), along with the arguments with her therapist over the phone (to name just a few). While some of these supporting plot lines make a film that’s already loaded with enough characters and situations to navigate seem somewhat congested, it still fits within the internal complex confusion Sibyl wrestles with. Even though Sibyl makes one bad decision after another, Efira portrays her in such an affective and absorbing manner, it’s hard to not get pulled into all the drama she causes and gets drowned in. Efira has great chemistry with Exarchopoulos (who succeeds in taking on a challenging role that requires much from her emotionally) and together, along with an energized and delightful Hüller (who all but runs away with the film), “Sibyl” becomes a splendid display of a fantastic acting triad. Their performances make for the most memorable aspects of a beautifully shot and passionately rendered story.




“Sibyl” is now playing at Music Box Theatre and via their Virtual Cinema. Find viewing details and options here.


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