Sibyl is a disappointment after Victoria, Triet's highly amusing previous film with the same star, Virginie Efira. I was surprised to find people consider Sibyl a comedy. It's more like an account of how a woman in recovery from alcoholism returns to drinking, and why: it that a funny subject?
Too much is going on here, and it's hard to know how to take it. There's a good basic topic (if this can be said to have one): a psychiatrist who steals from a patient's life to turn it into successful fiction. A simpler, more conventional treatment of this could have been interesting enough. But Triet and cowriter Arthur Harari pile on the complexity and obscure this theme. On top of that there's a surreal back-and-forth-flashback-montage editing technique of very short clips (a bad new fad) that's pretentious and adds confusion.
Sibyl (Efira) was a bestselling author but a painful breakup with her former boyfriend Gabriel (Niels Schneider), with whom she has a child, led her to quit writing and turn to psychotherapy (go figure). She is happy now (it would seem) with a new man, Etienne (Paul Hamy) by whom she has had another child, a little girl. She is going to meetings to conrol her alcoholism and isn't drinking. (Just wait.)
She has a younger sister, Laure Calamy (from the Netflix French TV hit Call My Agent), who appears several times, most notably to give the little girl a quick lesson in emotional manipulation: she tells her mother she "lacks the tools to deal with life." An amusing, but gratuitous, moment.
As the film begins - but it is full of flashbacks to the affair with Gabriel, including a gratuitous full-on sex scene (eschewed in Victoria) - Sibyl can no longer resist the temptation to go back to writing and to that end is dismissing her patients. There is a crudely comic scene of a patient royally pissed off at this. Tellingly, he says he has given her his whole life. Soon we will learn that she's quite likely to use it.
At least she does when she takes on a new patient who forces herself upon her for an emergency. She is Margot Vasilis (Adèle Exarchopoulos, in full hysteria mode), an actress on contract for a film to be made on and around the island of Stromboli (evidently a homage to the 1950 Bergman-Rossilini film). She is pregnant by her costar, Igor Moleski (Gaspard Ulliel), but he's involved with the film's German director, Mika Saunders (Sandra Hüller of Toni Edrmann). The emergency is that she can't decide whether to have the baby or not, and she can't bear to tell Igor she's pregnant.
Sibyl is never any discernible help in this matter, and Margot goes back and forth. Meanwhile Sibyl - who has none of the qualities of the wisdom of that name, or even any moral compass - is furiously writing a manuscript based on Margot's sessions, and presumably other stuff cribbed from people's lives. As time goes on, publishers turn out to be very pleased with the results. She's also having play-therapy sessions with a little boy grieving for his dead mother. (These seem gratuitous, and not that interesting, but that goes for much of the material that crowds this over-stuffed film.) Flashbacks frantically depict intense encounters between Sibyl and the handsome Niels Schneider.
Soon - and here is when we enter into farcical territory, though it seemed heavy-handed to me - Sibyl winds up with the film crew on Stromboli, because Margot is even more confused and desperate, but the filmmaking must go on, so she, Sibyl, is called in to hep Margot function. But due to the emotional complications with Igor, Margot, and Mika, Mika also is nearing a meltdown, her directing becoming ever more neurotic and extreme. (I couldn't help wondering if the way Mika's directing is handled might make future actors hesitate to take on Triet as a director.)
In a series of heavy-handed filmmaking sequences, Sibyl emerges for a while as the only competent person around, except perhaps for Igor, who mostly holds his temper. (This is a long-suffering and selfless role for Gaspard Ulliel and one of his most unflattering.)
In a way Victoria was a wild, disorderly mess too, with Efira in a ditsy but sexy role. A hilariously absurd courtroom sequence toward the end, and the charm and suavity of the great Melvil Poupaud, and the sweetness of Vincent Lacoste as a babysitter enamored of Efira, make that movie charming and fun. That doesn't happen here.
Eventually the responsibility - or the succession of inappropriate roles, not to mention the inappropriate behavior in assuming them, all the while breaking all the rules of medical ethics - causes Sibyl to meltdown, and her return to alcoholism is spectacular. It's also embarrassing and clumsily staged. And profoundly unfunny. While I sided with French critics on Victoria against the anglo ones who trashed it, this time I have to agree with the Anglos, and hope that Triet will have more success with her material in her next feature.
Sibyl, 100 mins., debuted in Belgium and France May 24 and the same day at at Cannes, Justine Triet's first film in Competition there. It played in four other festivals including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review, Oct. 5, 2019. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (butI Victoria was 3.8, La bataille de Solférino 4.0), Metascore (same as for Victoria) 57%.