Note: The writer of this review watched Sibyl from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is sitting in a Paris sushi bar with a literary agent. Around them, conveyor belts of sushi are moving in different directions, adding a visual element to the exhausting verbal confusion of the agent’s mile-a-minute rant, which he gesticulates like a manic conductor. In this anti-pep talk, which opens Justine Triet’s deceptive, overstuffed, and occasionally hilarious Sibyl, we do learn some crucial information. Sibyl published a modestly successful novel 10 years ago, but quit writing, and is now ready to start again. The next scene adds a tricky complication: Sibyl is a therapist, and devoting her time to a novel means dropping many of her long-time clients, who aren’t the kind of people who take rejection easily.
Much of the movie that bears her name plays out in one-sided exchanges and therapy sessions within therapy sessions, as Sibyl soon finds herself reluctantly taking on a new client, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose juicy problems seem to be the cure for her writer’s block. Margot is an actress who’s been carrying on an affair with her co-star, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), on the set of a drama in which they play a similarly conflicted couple. That the movie’s German director, Mika (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller), is Igor’s girlfriend is the least of Margot’s problems: She’s pregnant, and Igor is trying to talk her out of an abortion.
From the beginning, Triet dangles the possibility that the film might just turn into a queasy thriller, starting with creepy zooms and a barrage of references to the true crime craze, It Follows, and The Jinx. (The larger part of the movie is set around 2015, which in terms of period detail mostly translates to a lot of pensive vaping.) In fact, this is more or less the genre that Sibyl finds herself writing in. Although we only see brief close-ups of her manuscript, it appears to be a juicier version of Margot’s story. Before long, Sibyl has set herself up for a bad case of cross purposes: the therapist’s obligation to help her client understand that not every day is a crisis versus the author’s need to imagine the same events spiraling out of control.
Here, Sibyl begins to float some intriguing ideas, among which is the notion that we read ourselves and others in fictional terms and the metaphor of Sibyl’s manuscript (and its conflicts of interest) as a stand-in for an inner emotional process. Sibyl soon invests herself in her client’s life. In the present time frame, the writer-therapist is sober, married, and a mother of two young children, but Margot’s initial descriptions of Igor dredge up memories of her relationships in the mid- to late-2000s: sex, romances, break-ups, and a lot of drinking. Through these flashbacks, we start to suspect that she is slipping well before anything in the present hints at a potential downward spiral.
At the same time, Triet begins to subtly upend some conventions of stories in which reality gets plagiarized, actors get lost in their parts, and fact bleeds into fiction. The parallels between Igor’s and Margot’s roles and their offscreen relationship are actually derailing Mika’s film. Mika, in turn, knows about the affair and Margot’s pregnancy, but refuses to let it interfere with her tight budget and demanding shooting schedule. (Line for line, Hüller’s passive-aggressively matter-of-fact performance has to be one of the year’s funniest.)
Triet’s direction is witty, regularly finding clever and disorienting ways to break in and out of scenes while the more predictable developments of the plot take unexpectedly elongated paths. She’s less successful at modulating the movie’s erratic changes in tone, which veer from po-faced character study to deadpan farce. It’s only when Sybil leaves behind the mise-en-scène of book-lined offices and apartments familiar from countless upper-middle-class French dramas and relocates to Mika’s film shoot on the volcanic Italian island of Stromboli that we begin to see its soap opera in an appropriately picturesque environment.
Apart from their entanglements, these characters aren’t very complicated: Margot spends much of her screen time crying, while Igor oozes insincere motives. They are either frustrated and miserable in funny ways, like the deadpan Mika, or unfunny ones. However, one might argue that the pursuit of happiness is beyond the scope of what Triet is portraying. More so than the mysteries of therapy or the clash of life and fiction, the true subject of Sibyl is the daily business of keeping it together under forces of stress and addiction, and the familiar conflict between the danger sense that makes us think that something is going abruptly and irrevocably wrong and the reality that things mostly go wrong in a very long-term arc, which the same danger sense prevents us from seeing. Despite the therapeutic functions ascribed to art by both its creators and its audiences, very few of us actually want to play the therapist. Triet does, handling her characters with an almost diagnostic detachment.