After a 10-year hiatus, Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is finally ready to start writing again. A lot has changed since the last time she made the attempt. For starters, she has kids and a serious relationship now, rather than the tumultuous, virulent fling she once had with Gabriel (Niels Schneider). (For the most part, although thoughts of their toxic tryst occasionally push their way to the forefront of her mind). There’s also the matter of her day job as a psychotherapist, a career in which she’s found great success — although she’s more than happy to put it on the back burner as she tries to fully commit herself to a new novel. Combine these things with her mother’s tragic death, her long journey to sobriety, and a slew of other stressors that’ve added up in the interim, and it’s clear that Sibyl should have plenty of fodder for her book-to-be. Alas, writer’s block comes creeping in anyway. Considering how long Sibyl has been working as a therapist, it’s easy to understand why she can’t just drop the profession like it’s nothing and focus on her manuscript. Psychotherapy has been her life — her distraction from life, really — for a decade now. She needs to ease out of it slowly. Surely her writing won’t suffer if she takes on two new patients, right? After all, how can it suffer if she hasn’t made any headway thus far?
A grieving boy around her children’s age named Daniel (Adrien Bellemare) and a tormented actress named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) are her new clients. Both prove to be the kind of difficult personalities that drew Sibyl to the job in the first place. Margot especially so: Currently filming a high-profile production and secretly pregnant with her co-star Igor’s (Gaspard Ulliel) baby, she fears what will happen if the director (Sandra Hüller) — said co-star’s new partner — discovers their affair. The French starlet is justifiably a nervous wreck, scared that she’ll lose her job (and more) if her secret gets out and increasingly distraught as an impending island shoot grows near. All this melodrama is extremely distracting for Sibyl, sucking up most of the time that she should be spending writing. It’s not a total loss, though: She soon begins recording Margot’s sessions and transcribing them straight into her manuscript at night, melding the actress’s trauma with her own equally agonizing history — and blurring the lines between their individual and professional lives in the process.
If a film is going to get intimate enough to be on a first-name basis with its lead and spend a majority of its running time in their personal space, then that person needs to be a thoroughly compelling character. Thankfully, Sibyl is. Multidimensional and complex thanks to a rock-solid performance from Efira, Sibyl owes a lot to the woman at its center for making her believably manipulative, whereas other actors might’ve opted for an over-the-top sociopath. Her various outward identities — competent parent, loving spouse, good friend, trustworthy therapist — each serve as a domino, an interconnected set of flimsy fictional stories she’s been telling long before she ever started writing them. All she needs is a gentle nudge for it to all come toppling down. Although she doesn’t realize it initially, that gentle nudge is Margot.
Margot’s chaotic life has all the makings of the “great chick lit” Sibyl’s colleague flippantly says is the only way to make it as a novelist these days. As she becomes more and more involved in the inner workings of the actress’ life, Sibyl begins interjecting her own experiences into the narrative — a move that thrusts Sibyl and Margot deeper into the mess they’re subconsciously (or maybe somewhat consciously) orchestrating together. Determining what an author can and can’t mine from the experiences of others for their own gain is well-trodden territory, appearing in recent multi-international films like Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction (2018) and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s The Truth (2019), but Sibyl uses a decidedly more Swedish — i.e., Bergmanian — approach to the topic that sets it apart from its contemporaries.
Much of this unique take has to do with the way writer-director Justine Triet handles Sibyl’s jarring flashbacks. She employs a tried-and-true technique — intercutting snippets from Sibyl’s past as a way to further flesh out the character — and manages to make it feel uniquely her own. There’s an expertly crafted urgency to the way she splices them in: a quick flash of Gabriel, a split-second shot of a drunk Sibyl stumbling through the streets of Paris, a glimpse of her mother’s funeral, then back to the present. The more time the viewer spends in this world, the more apparent it becomes that these unwanted memories are the real truth, the real Sibyl buried deep within, relentlessly trying to find a way out and bring her false reality crashing down. At times, it truly feels like this history is going to be victorious.
Triet’s Sibyl demonstrates a distinctive filmmaking prowess that suggests even greater success yet to come. It’s no easy feat for a film to convincingly juggle the farcical relationship among director and actors, the tense drama between doctor and patient, and the lingering romance of past loves, then top it all off with a dash of existential horror. Still, Triet sustains this manic chaos for almost the entirety of Sibyl’s 100 minutes. Not to mention, the film is also intelligent, filled with thoughtful commentary on filmmaking, literature, loss, memory, and reality itself. Triet doesn’t just make her film look good, but also fills it with substance to match. It’s a genuine accomplishment that Sibyl doesn’t begin to sputter until the final reel. There’s enough happening to trip up the most seasoned filmmaker, but Triet maintains the madness nearly all the way to the end. With three features under her belt thus far, Triet’s career is definitely one that’ll be worth watching as long as she continues putting out distinctively and unabashedly French work such as this.
Sibyl is now available to rent in virtual cinemas through Music Box Films.