The most obvious takeaway from the first beat of Sylvie’s Love—a lavishly directed new period romance from Eugene Ashe, who also wrote the screenplay—is that for his second feature, Ashe clearly has a profound passion for Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s. From the title cards to the flashy intros of our main cast, Ashe doesn’t hold back from transporting the audience into an alternative history where filmmakers of color could try their hand at love stories featuring black characters.
But the other and more equally important observation to be had in the film’s early moments is its commitment to emotional storytelling through music, to the point where the running score by Fabrice Lecomte could have easily overpowered the central performances if they didn’t belong to Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha (the former NFL player who starred in Crown Heights a few years ago). And wow does this film belong to these two performers. Perhaps thanks to Ashe’s background in music as a recording artist, he knew exactly how to shoot Sylvie’s Love in a way where the visual composition is in a heated love affair with the musical composition, to a level on par with even some of the classics.
The story is set in Harlem, New York during the late 1950s and early ’60s, where Robert (Asomugha) has agreed to play a local club for an entire summer with his jazz quartet. They’ve got a lot of talent, but Robert is quietly considered the real prodigy as saxophonist. Robert passes by a record store one day and immediately falls for the titular Sylvie (Thompson), who happens to be engaged to a man of higher class who is currently abroad.
What follows is an epic saga of seduction, longing, and all that good stuff we expect from romantic dramas of this caliber. Like Todd Haynes’s Carol, Ashe has a keen interest in modernizing this story to suit the audiences of today, and he mostly achieves success. The film manages to gently address both the aggressive and casual bigotry of the era without changing course completely into a wholly different movie. Mileage may vary, however, when it comes to how this film appreciates the realities of its setting. For me, it’s just so unbelievably refreshing to let characters like this bask in each other’s love without contrived stakes forcing them external pain.
The true conflict in Sylvie’s Love is found in the title. Sylvie loves two men, but in one of the film’s masterstrokes, her love is also in service to herself, her family, her career, and her aspirations. Sylvie’s love is a desire she controls, which is a way for the movie to escape the pitfalls of many older films in this style, because instead of only being the object of affection, Sylvie is an active agent in what she wants and what she’ll do to get it. She’s certainly not perfect, but Thompson brilliantly transcends the character flaws in order to provoke deep empathy from the audience.
The problem is that unlike Carol and other similar films like If Beale Street Could Talk, there’s not a wealth of originality in the storytelling to match the creativity of the concept and how well its executed. A handful of character decisions feel manufactured to prolong the running time, and potentially compelling subplots tend to be dropped without much payoff or proper buildup.
Some of these issues will hopefully be minor for most audiences, like they are for me. Sylvie’s Love is far too warm and tenderhearted for me to be all that sad about some of its missed opportunities. And if Eugene Ashe continues making films this beautifully devoted to authentic and rarely-seen human experiences, we’re in for even more stories worth swooning for.
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