I don’t have a Venn diagram handy to prove it, but the decline of softcore B-movies must have coincided with the rise of easily accessible pornography. In the 1980s, X-rated VHS tapes were widely available, if tucked away at the back of your neighborhood video store. Hardcore pornography eliminated the need for productions that titillated the viewer, without having to include graphic climax scenes. Sylvia Kristel’s series of Emmanuelle films look quaint in comparison to what’s available online now.
One of the conventions of a softcore movie is that the female lead, shimmering in gauzy lighting, will soon be overwhelmed with desire for the man, or men, pursuing her. American movies like Something Wild (1986), The Last Seduction (1994) and Secretary (2002) toy with the genre and render them obsolete. The films abandon the outdated dynamic of a passive female waiting to give pleasure to her man. Nothing prevents these characters from owning their sexuality with a fizzy mix of comic timing, brutality, or salaciousness.
Justine Triet’s Sibyl descends from that old school tradition of softcore and heated melodramas. But the intervening years have informed her approach. She films her heroine from a self-empowered, and self-deluded, vantage point. Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is a more enlightened creature than Emmanuelle, but only in terms of her professional life (which is, after all, a quantifiable advance in consciousness from the 1970s). Triet embraces some of the genre’s conventions but the director also allows Sibyl to escape from them. Or almost all of them.
Sibyl’s in the midst of closing her psychotherapy practice in order to concentrate on her writing career. She’s married with two children and is, notably, a recovering alcoholic. That means we can count on some unreliable narration and questionable presentations of reality.
Triet shapes Sibyl’s story with nonlinear scenes that overlap in time. When Sibyl is filmed having vigorous sex in various places and positions with Gabriel (Niels Schneider) — a man who is not her husband — it’s hard to tell at first that this is an affair from the distant past. But the editing is deliberate on Triet’s part. The director wants us to understand that Sibyl is still obsessed with Gabriel. In the present, she barely communicates with her husband. Instead of confiding in him, Sibyl keeps disappearing inside her mind, to some of the best sexual encounters of her life.
Then an actress named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) calls. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and in desperate need of a therapist. Sibyl’s first reaction is to refer her to another doctor. But something about Margot’s plight stops her. Sibyl accepts her as a new patient. Margot, sobbing again later in her office, confesses that she’s gotten herself entangled with an actor on the set of her current film. Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) claims he’s in love with her but he also happens to be in a romantic relationship with Mika (Sandra Hüller), the director of the film.
Triet then augments the melodrama by relocating the characters to a remote Mediterranean island, like the one in Summer Lovers (1982). This island, where they’re finishing the film shoot, also happens to have an active volcano on it. When the storyline lands there, the director finds her overarching and unsubtle metaphor. Sibyl is vicariously, and unconsciously, reliving her love affair with Gabriel through Margot and Igor. But nobody on the set is behaving themselves. Someone, whether it’s Sibyl or Margot or Mika, is going to blow their top.
Sybil dons a pair of Clark Kent glasses when she’s in session with a patient. During her sex scenes, she ditches those repressive glasses and unleashes her true passionate self. Triet attributes the character’s tendency to compartmentalize to Sybil’s alcoholic mother. But she only nods at the idea. It’s really Sybil’s unresolved feelings for Gabriel, and the recurring flashbacks to their ardent embraces, that lead her to the volcano’s edge.
Sibyl is now playing virtually via the Smith Rafael Film Center.