It’s both a shame that a movie like Sylvie’s Love had to be made now, and both a blessing and confirmation as well. In the 1950s a movie depicting Black love would have definitely raised some eyebrows. The closest the studio system got to make such a film was in 1957’s Island In the Sun, starring hot commodity (but criminally underused and underappreciated) Dorothy Dandridge in a biracial romance that barely survived the censors.
While Eugene Ashe’s movie doesn’t delve into biracial topics, it simply contents itself in depicting a story that has been told over and over since the history of movie-making with increasing amounts of gloss and sheen to add to the allure, the magic of meeting, falling in love, and losing love. At its heart, it’s a basic story of star-crossed lovers who simply met at the wrong time and whose paths have them dovetail, but never truly blend together.
When we meet Sylvie (Tessa Thompson, who smolders during every second she is on the frame and needs to break out into major stardom, not just Westworld fame), she’s a gamine with a fashionable 50’s pixie cut that perfectly frames her wide eyes drenched in the expression of the young. She works at her father’s record store, but we infer that she longs for more than just her immediate reality by the way she gushes over I Love Lucy episodes. In essence, Ashe has created a Black counterpoint to the type of beauty Audrey Hepburn encapsulated — a lovely work of art just aching for a moment under the camera lights, dressed in Valentino or Balenciaga.
Into Sylvie’s life walks Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a young saxophone player who also has ambitions of being a jazz player in the vein of Coltrane (which becomes a running motif during the film). Both meet, and boy, do sparks fly, Their conversation yields more erotic tension than any sex scene. When it is over, there is a sense of incompleteness, of something left unfinished. It is frustrating, but in the best of romantic movies, this plot point is essential to keep the story edging on suspense.
It turns out that even when both Sylvie and Robert clearly belong together, they’re already separated by class and societal expectations. Sylvie has a fiancee who is in Korea, and Robert… really can’t offer her more than what he has, high hopes, and the rosy aspects of love. However, life and destiny has other plans in sight, and while they do separate, it is not before they share a moment of passion that itself generates a secret she must keep, and Ashe, a director stepping into the shoes of Jacques Demy or Douglas Sirk, makes it effortless, breathless, and bursting with repressed desire.
Ashe then diverges his characters into separate storylines, in another classic move in which we are meant to see a guy and a girl morph from idealistic young adults into their more rigid counterparts. Her story gets a little more flare than his; she makes quiet (but important) history when she lands the position of assistant to a TV producer who is Black and female. Eventually, Sylvie’s career has her rising the ranks while Robert’s flounders in a move not unsimilar to that of A Star is Born, but Ashe’s movie never loses its focus, which is to keep both Sylvie and Robert connected by a bond that will last the test of time, and hopefully, survive by the time the story begins to wrap its threads up and close.
As I said at the start, it is both a shame and confirmation that Sylvie’s Love could only be made now. To think of the possibilities of having seen a version of this movie starring Diahann Carroll (who Thompson seems to be channeling) and Sidney Poitier, just to name two actors of the time who could have carried a movie of this magnitude on their shoulders. It is criminal to look back and see that Hollywood as a movie-making money machine could not fathom anyone of color having their own story. Instead, they were reduced for the longest time to being “specialty” or playing maids and butlers and an occasional shady character in a blink-or-miss spot, such as Theresa Harris in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.
Even so, Ashe’s movie takes on a story made popular by White Hollywood to make his own version. It’s not that he succeeds; you never once see Sylvie or Robert or anyone onscreen as a symbol of African Americans under any trauma from race relations. These are fully realized characters with rich internal lives who make the wrong choices in life and still manage to pick up the pieces.
At times the story veers into the artifice of prepackaged romance. I’ve come to believe this is a deliberate move in order to capture the gloss and sheen of the types of “women’s pictures” that were made during the era. Everything has the element of a studio picture down to the smallest detail. Even a tangential rival gets thrown in for good measure and we chuckle because we get it — “She can’t compete with Tessa Thompson; look at her.”
While it may be a bit too soapy for some, this is a type of movie that does not get made anymore. The last time anyone made a picture of this type was back in 2002 when Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven. Even so, Sylvie’s Love is a must-see for anyone seeking a movie that looks and feels like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This is a movie with big emotions that ebb and goes with the tides of its passions, it is very old-school, even a tad clunky in some expositions, but that is its magic.
Sylvie’s Love is available on Amazon Prime. [A]