Sundance 2020: Sylvie’s Love

Rating: 3/4

Opening in 1962 New York City, a well-dressed Black woman stands outside a theater alone waiting for a late companion. There, she unexpectedly runs into an old flame. Romances run hot and cold. This one is still breathing, if only quietly. Eugene Ashe’s directorial feature debut Sylvie’s Love is a timeless love story ticking through the decades between two characters fated to cherish the other yet meant to part.

Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) are the central couple. The former dreams of working in television, while the latter plays a sweet yet mournful saxophone in a jazz quartet. As lovers do, they meet by chance. Robert notices her working in her father’s (Lance Reddick) record store. He gets a job as an extra hand there to get to know Sylvie. However, there are two central issues: Sylvie is engaged, and the two lovers are from vastly different backgrounds. Sylvie from a well-to-do family, and Robert a self-taught musician and once-plant worker.

The push-pull between the couple also stems from their entrapment in the gender norms of the period. While Sylvie rises in life nearly unfettered: there is the specter of her backwards husband in the face of her growing career, even Robert as a challenger against her dysfunctional marriage can’t undo the years of masculine training that says he should be the sole provider. Sylvie’s Love unearths the contours and fissures within the Black community: the difference between high-middle and working class in this regard too. With Black people often having to lose parts of themselves to rise economic ladders, while neglecting the lower “unrefined” classes that a white society might not accept.

The film follows in the footsteps of the MGM studio-era romances of the 1950’s, in aesthetics and narrative. The love affair between Sylvie and Robert is made in the mold of Casablanca or Brief Encounter or a Douglas Sirk melodrama. It’s earnest yet timeless. Moreover, these star-crossed lovers somehow rediscover each other again and again, bound by some unknown force.

The crafts of Sylvie’s Love are incredible, from the costumes to the production design, each transports audiences back to the period. It’s a rarity to be given a Black love story that’s strictly a love story. Most period pieces composed around Black stories have more to do with trauma than artistic expressions or career dreams. That is, Sylvie’s Love isn’t an If Beale Could Talk knock-off. The narrative charts its own distinct path.

Though deep, the cast mostly revolves around the two leads. Thompson initially opens the proceedings shaky. Her character’s cultured and intellectual charm rocks woodenly. However, after the opening act, when Sylvie gains greater autonomy, Thompson finds her stride. She has great chemistry with Asomugha’s subliminally cool Robert. Though Asomugha doesn’t flash much range, he understands the understated quality of Robert: a working-class self-taught musician who’s more comfortable in the unity of a quartet than off on his own.

If one fault could be found with Sylvie’s Love, it’s the length. Running at 114 minutes, between the second and third act, the love affair’s wings lose height. Doubtlessly, the narrative needn’t to skip grudgingly through every chance encounter between the two. In any case, Ashe and Sylvie’s Love flashes moments of aesthetically gorgeous brilliance even in the sometimes weighty past.

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