Cannes 2019 review: Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Working as a therapist is not fulfilling for Sibyl (Virginie Efira), and it is interfering with her ambitions to write a novel, so she leaves most of her patients in an effort to eventually close her practice. Once Sibyl finally has the opportunity to get to work, she sits in front of a blank document on her computer: inspiration is not coming to her right away like she thought it would. Soon enough, she receives a mysterious telephone call from a young woman asking her for help to make a decision. Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), an actress in her mid-twenties, is two months pregnant, and is torn by whether or not she should keep this child. After unsuccessful attempts to refer Margot elsewhere, Sibyl agrees to meet with her.

Margot’s situation is complicated: she has been having a passionate affair with Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), the hunky leading man of her latest film shoot, and while their romance burns hot, it is unclear if it will be sustainable in the long term. Their film takes them to Stromboli, the volcanic island (no doubt a metaphor) off the coast of Sicily, where tensions are inevitably bound to erupt. Margot begs Sibyl to come with her: she believes that she cannot endure filming without Sibyl’s support, especially because she still has not decided whether or not to follow through with her abortion.

Meanwhile, Sibyl has enough problems of her own to deal with. She is not so happily partnered with Etienne (Paul Hamy): he is a nice guy – very committed, despite her many neuroses – and helps take good care of Sibyl’s young daughter, but she is still infatuated by the memory of her child’s father Gabriel (Niels Schneider), a younger, sexier man incapable of loving her back and fulfilling her needs.

At first glance, Sibyl is extremely funny and clever, and though it also has some very melodramatic material, the more serious beats seem somewhat outpowered by its often-outrageous comedy. But there are some poignant themes percolating beneath the surface of accessible romantic comedy, particularly in the exploration of boundaries. Like in Justine Triet’s previous feature In Bed with Victoria, a writer’s inspiration is informed by the life circumstances of a significant figure in their life: In Bed with Victoria uses Efira’s Victoria as the muse for her ex-husband’s new novel, while the roles are reversed in Sibyl, where the female lead is the one using someone else’s life as her source of creativity. There is a trade-off in boundaries crossed: Margot is constantly testing Sibyl’s professional limits by trying to cling to Sibyl as her lifeline (usually succeeding); and while it would be generous to say that Sibyl’s acquiescence is dubious, there remains little doubt that she has crossed an ethical boundary once she begins to live vicariously through Margot’s personal life as inspiration for her novel.

For both Triet and her leading lady Efira, Sibyl is a significant improvement over their previous feature: In Bed with Victoria used a revolving door of casual flings with men as a proof of and means to explore a messy personal life for its heroine. In Sibyl, only one hook-up is used as an example of her restlessness (it would be a significant spoiler to say with whom). The choice to make Sibyl’s vocation, in the midst of all of her mental instability, that of a psychotherapist is ironic and humourous, and sets the tone for Triet and Efira to really go for it and fully critique and embrace this character. Once thought of as merely a leading lady suitable for romantic comedies, Efira in Sibyl shows that she is up for more challenging work, given how well she balances romantic comedy with dramatic material.