Similarly interwoven are the present and the past. Sibyl has settled down with her partner Etienne (Paul Hamy) and a couple of kids, but she’s haunted by memories of Gabriel (Niels Schneider), who she broke up with a decade earlier. Shown in flashback, this relationship parallels Margot’s affair with Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), her co-star on her latest film and the boyfriend of Mika (Sandra Huller), the highly-strung director.
Sibyl also has a therapist, attends regular AA meetings and still appears to be dealing with the death of her mother, which in turn affects her relationship with her sister (Laure Calamy). The film moves briskly between these subplots, the camera keeping an equable distance even as the characters go to emotional extremes (including in the quite effective sex scenes).
A degree of disorientation seems intentional – and the plot complications border on farce even before the scene shifts to the film shoot on the remote volcanic island of Stromboli (famous as the setting for Roberto Rossellini’s not at all comic 1950 neo-realist film of the same title starring his muse and eventual lover Ingrid Bergman).
This is easily the liveliest portion of Sibyl, thanks largely to Huller, who was unforgettable in the 2016 German comedy Toni Erdmann, and excels once again as a capable yet neurotic professional unable to conceal her discomfort in her own skin.
Sibyl and Mika are mirror images of each other, both blonde, sharp-witted and somewhat tense. But as a comic character Mika is significantly more extreme and therefore more compelling, especially in the film’s most extended set-piece, in which a staged shipboard romance between Margot and Igor is derailed by drama behind the scenes.
In a dreamlike manner, Sibyl is the only one who can get things moving, as if the other characters were puppets and she were pulling the strings. Once again, this might lead us to wonder how much of this is meant to be happening for real and what Triet herself might be “working through,” in a story that seemingly equates art and therapy or at least maps one onto the other.
If Sibyl were an American film it would leave us with the sense the heroine had achieved a clear “emotional breakthrough”. Triet ends on a more ambivalent note. That’s no bad thing, and yet as a confection Sibyl is finally unsatisfying, either too frothy or not frothy enough.
The problem seems to be an over-supply of themes and ideas. Sibyl’s fascination with Margot, for instance, is a viable premise in itself but it would be easier to keep this relationship in focus if some of the extraneous material had been pruned.
To take the opposite tack, it is surprising just how much is kept offscreen, including incidents that are turning points of the plot. Perhaps the version of Sibyl we have has been cut down from a significantly longer version, which no doubt would be even messier, but also potentially more compelling as psychodrama. Or perhaps, like Mika, Triet ran into trouble during the shoot, and had to fall back on a plan to “fix it in editing”.
Sibyl is now available on DVD and Video On Demand.