Sylvie's LoveReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/24/20 01:37:06
(Worth A Look)
Even in a cinematic period made topsy-turvy by the global pandemic, the last few weeks have offered up such a glut of titles jockeying for the various end-of-year awards and whatnot that some perfectly good movies run the risk of falling through the cracks. One such film is “Sylvie’s Love,” writer-director Eugene Ashe’s period drama charting the on-and-off relationship between a pair of star-crossed lovers that is admittedly uneven, awkward and oftentimes contrived beyond belief but which contains enough other moments of sheer cinematic bliss to let viewers—at least the more romantic ones—forgive most of its flaws.As the film opens, it is 1962 and Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) is waiting to go into a Nancy Wilson concert when she spots and recognizes a man outside the theatre. This is Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) and at this point, the scene shifts to 1957, when Robert is a saxophonist for a struggling jazz quartet and Sylvie, who yearns to one day work in the emerging field of television, is working in the record shop owned by her ex-musician father (Lance Reddick) while waiting for her fiancee, Lacy (Alamo Miller), to return home from the Army to marry her. The two meet when Robert goes into the store looking for the new Thelonious Monk album and, thunderstruck by the sight of Sylvie, gets a job there to boot. She is clearly attracted to him as well but there is that pesky fiancee, the son of the richest family in Harlem, and so she tries to deny it. However, the two cannot deny the feelings growing between them and spend a blissful few weeks together until they are forced to separate after Sylvie’s proper mother becomes suspicious. Robert gets a break when his band gets a big gig in France and he hopes to bring Sylvie with but at the last second, she decides to stay behind—not informing him that she is now pregnant with his child.
When the story picks up five years later, Sylvie is married to Lacy, who is raising her daughter as his, and working as a switchboard operator at a local television station until she catches a break and get a job working on a cooking show as the producer’s assistant, despite Lacy’s wishes that she stay home and be a proper housewife. As for Robert, he has returned to New York and is still playing with the now-successful quartet. It is at this point that we return to the point where we came in and even though they each now have more to lose, they are still unable to deny their attraction. However, the course of true love never runs smooth and is particularly rocky in this case as both undergo seismic changes in their lives even as their love burns as strongly as ever and paradoxically threatens to destroy them at the same time.
With its impossibly chic trappings (if this moviee doesn't score an Oscar nomination for costumes, it will be a travesty) and super-soapy plot twists, “Sylvie’s Love” is a film that has clearly been designed to evoke memories of the sumptuously produced romantic melodramas made by the likes of Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter back in the day—that is, if Hollywood would have dared to produce such a film with African-Americans in all the key roles instead of just filling in the subservient parts that they were usually relegated to back then. That is an interesting conceit for a film, to be sure, but it so slavishly follows those past formulas that it winds up emulating their flaws as well. For a film like this to work properly, the two lovers have to be separated for most of the running time but if the hurdles they encounter aren’t handled correctly, the story can become an exercise in frustration. That is what happens here—the contrivances that crop up start to feel a little forced and towards the end, your retinas may be in danger of detaching from all the eyeball rolling you will be doing. Ash’s screenplay also has an odd tendency to introduce plot points—such as Sylvie’s dad’s knowledge the truth about her and Robert or a once-flighty cousin (Aja Naomi King) who signs on to become a part of the unfolding civil rights movement—only to more or less forget about them.
And yet, no matter how awkward the storytelling gets—and it get really awkward in the late innings—I still found myself caught up with it on some basic level. For one thing, it looks absolutely gorgeous as cinematographer Declan Quinn gives the film a sumptuous look that evokes any number of classic films of its era (though there never actually were films quite like this back then) and will have viewers swooning in their seats. Once revived, they may find themselves knocked for a second loop by the off-the-charts chemistry between the two leads. Of course, both Thompson and Asomugha are impossibly attractive and charismatic but that is only part of it. They are also both strong enough as actors take a screenplay that could have easily turned into a collection of bad laughs and unlikely plot developments and sell it through their performances and their mutual ability to create a convincing screen relationship. There are also a number of nice supporting performances as well but the most surprising of the bunch comes from none other than Eva Longoria, mostly because is virtually unrecognizable—as odd as that may sound—in a small but important bit as the wife of the leader of Robert’s band.“Sylvie’s Love” is not a great movie, I suppose, but it contains a number of things in it that are great, or at least quite good. I cannot say that I bought a lot of it from a dramatic standpoint and there are points where it threatens to become too outlandish for words. Despite all of that, I still found myself caught up in all of its dreamy excesses and hoping that its central characters would somehow find happiness in the end. It is nonsense, of course, but it is nonsense that is sincerely told. There are times when that is all that a movie needs to do in order to work—this is one of those times and “Sylvie’s Love” is one of those movies.
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