The sibyls of Ancient Greece foretold prophesies and supposedly had intimate connections with the deities, with most of those deities hailing from the underworld. Justine Triet’s protagonist Sibyl could be seen in similar terms. She is, after all, a psychotherapist whose “prophesies” are rooted in psychology rather than spirituality, but she is still closely linked to aspects of faith, as well. Her clients, for instance, need to believe she can help them overcome their issues. They willingly place her in a position of power. They ask for miracles of mental wellness.
But there wouldn’t be a movie if Sibyl did not complicate the paradigm. First: she no longer wishes to practice psychotherapy full-time, instead preferring to fall back on her first passion of writing. Second: she is beleaguered by her own issues, including a messy falling out with an ex-lover, leaving her to care for their child in addition to her own immediate family (as well as her fragile sister), and an alcohol addiction that’s exacerbated when she’s stressed. And third: her newest patient is a pregnant actress with a life that parallels Sibyl’s past so closely that she can’t resist becoming involved in her affairs. The transition from therapeutic prophetess to a creative one (or even a deity in total control of her life) is what Triet chronicles in this film, and to say it’s a complicated one is underselling quite a bit.
Complicated though it may be, Triet balances the story’s light and darkness quite well, making her tale serious enough for Sibyl’s issues to resonate, while at the same time infusing it with camp sensibilities so that it never becomes too dour. Take the presence of Sandra Hüller, for example; as a high-strung film director, she steals most of her scenes with her superb comedic timing, but in a way that doesn’t tonally clash with the more melancholic efforts of Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Gaspard Ulliel and the other members of the cast, all of whom portray their characters with a clear understanding of their follies. Thus, this story that is so populated with broken and insecure figures can take humorous detours without feeling like they’ve been falsely come by, adding rather than detracting from the nuanced character work already being accomplished by the actors.
Sibyl works because of that attention to character: the way Efira slowly unspools Sibyl’s vulnerabilities, the way Exarchopoulos channels Margot’s desolate rage, the way Ulliel seizes on Igor’s manipulative tendencies. It patterns out their psyches in ways that simultaneously entertain and aggrieve, amuse and disturb, creating a slick web of intrigue that Triet further complicates with disorienting flashbacks and scenes lacking obvious context. It may look like a slight work from a distance, but when you consider these fascinating textures, its boldness leaps out with almost disarming immediacy.
Sibyl made its North American premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 11, 2019.