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‘Sylvie’s Love’ Review: In the Mood for Romance, Sighs and Tears

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Desires and dreams come together wonderfully in “Sylvie’s Love”, an old-fashioned romance for hearts of the 21st century. Modestly scaled yet emotionally expansive, it haunted a pair of young lovers through years of happiness and regret, from the late 1950s to the early 60s. When the world turns, they meet, fall hard, hesitate and part. Among the kisses and sighs, Nancy Wilson sings (“All my bright mornings are yours”) and the screen is full of bold colors and passions. Give up the fortress in which you are hiding, it says in this film. Let the feelings in, let the tears flow – that’s what films are made for.

Our heroine Sylvie – an irresistible Tessa Thompson – lives with her parents in Harlem. She works in her father’s record store (Monk in that trash can, Sonny Rollins over there) and dutifully models when her mother teaches etiquette to girls in saddle shoes. Sylvie with her pixie haircut and the perfectly fitting turtleneck, her doe eyes and her expressive face looks like she should be waiting for her close-up on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer backlot. But she is a black woman in America in 1957, and that kind of cinematic worship is only granted to characters like hers when films like this one can be made, films that show you what films could and should be.

When an aspiring saxophonist, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, producer on the film) walks into the record store, the story quickly slips into the groove. Sparks fly, although it takes Sylvie a little longer than Robert to notice (or admit) what is happening. She has a fiancé, the son of a wealthy doctor, whom she met at a cotillion. What’s a cotillion? Asks Robert, one of the nods in the history of class differences. But Robert is sweet and flirtatious, and soon he and Sylvie are restlessly exchanging meaningful glances. When they finally kiss, the moment is as trembling and carefully staged as classic studio romance: It’s night, the lighting is beautiful and so is you.

“Sylvie’s Love” is just the second feature from Eugene Ashe, who knows how to move the camera (and when not), but also how to stage it within the frame. He’s an obvious movie buff; A scene in a Chinese restaurant that is flooded with red light reads like a fluttering Valentine’s Day in Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”. But Ashe doesn’t indulge in fanboy innuendos to polish his credentials. Rather, like Todd Haynes in his tragic melodrama “Far From Heaven” (and Douglas Sirk once in the studio), Ashe uses a well-known, long-ridiculed film genre both lovingly and critically to explore the shiny surfaces of life and the agony that lies beneath lies.

Because Ashe takes melodrama seriously, he professes its exuberant sincerity. He doesn’t wink at you and asks for knowing giggles at the nakedness of the emotions. Instead, he asks you to go all-in, fall in love with Sylvie and Robert as they pounce on each other, worry, and take root for them. It’s just because both actors are so appealing. Thompson’s ability to externalize emotions is especially important to what Ashe does and why he holds her in the face when she first hears Robert play in a club. As she listens, her face opens and the feelings pour in – animate, warm – and it is clear that she is really seeing him now.

Ashe leans on Thompson and lets her do much of the work when Sylvie and Robert are together. Asomugha is a good reactor and handsome to look at, but he doesn’t have Thompson’s emotional reach. The rest of the cast is top notch and includes a number of welcoming faces including Eva Longoria, Lance Reddick, Erica Gimpel, and Aja Naomi King. I’m less convinced of Jemima Kirke than the Countess, a wealthy jazz fan who plunges into Robert’s life and provides money and connections. A more convincing symbol of how white paternalism is wrapped in patronage may well have been, but then, like most white characters, the countess is pretty much irrelevant.

That’s the point of the movie. “Sylvie’s Love” does a largely compelling job of recreating a Hollywood melodrama from the 1950s, if not in all of its details, but certainly in its emphasis on passionate emotions and feelings. The characters don’t sound like they spent time on the couch. They talk and sometimes find out things, but they don’t explain too much with self-help insights. Sometimes they pronounce clunkers (“the times when they change”) because Ashe’s script doesn’t always match his ambitions. But it’s nice when the filmmaking speaks, when the opulent score swirls and the palette vibrates with its many shades of blue and splashes of bright red, green, and pumpkin.

Ashe’s most radical move is how he sets up classic melodrama to tell a story of black love that would never have been told in old Hollywood. (Unfortunately, today’s commercial mainstream has all but given up on pure romance.) Particularly revealing is his persistent focus on the inner workings of his characters, on what Sylvie and Robert long for and dream of, as people rather than as emblems of race or race Avatars of ideals. The bigger world is pushing as it has to, and there are references here and there to the civil rights movement. Equally important, however, are all the white faces in the TV shows Sylvie sees, images that she studies and that she hopes one day will change.

Ashe wants you to think about the life of his loved one, but he also wants you to pass out. He wants you to take the empathetic leap so that you can feel – and think about – other lives deep within your body. Critics scoffed at melodramas and dismissed them as three-handkerchief weeping. Bring handkerchiefs, they wrote, advice that ridiculed both the films and their suspected female audience. You should grab tissues to see “Sylvie’s Love”, but I mean it, encouraging. I saw the film alone on an early December morning. I was banned and transported. This year has given us many things to cry about, but here is a story we can get lost in and weep joyfully, gratefully with.

Sylvie’s love
Rated PG-13 for adult life. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. View on Amazon.

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