Film-within-a-film is nothing new, but Justine Triet's latest Sibyl seems to have crafted a category all of its own. Her third feature centres on Sibyl, an alcoholic therapist who cuts off all her patients in order to focus on her writing.
Struggling for ideas, the arrival of a new patient – an actress who has been impregnated by her co-star, who is dating their director – provides Sibyl with the perfect source material.
It makes for a heady mix of genres, tackling obsession, creativity, desire and perfection, while taking the cinematic tropes associated with writer's block, therapy and filmmaking and throwing them all on to an island.
It results in an often jarring mix of tone and style. Montages come out of nowhere and strike you with a thumping, pulsating score that as quickly returns to silence. Flashbacks are scattered with disorienting unpredictability, some lasting just seconds that makes it hard to find your bearings early on.
Yet the unbalance seems to be Triet's intention.
Sibyl's conflicted desires – mother, writer, therapist, lover – sends her further down the rabbit hole as she finds herself in increasingly outlandish and unprofessional situations, the haphazard editing reflecting her disoriented state. Virginie Efira is the film's one constant, balancing Sibyl's world-facing bemused placidity with more disturbed, primal qualities boiling away in the background.
A gifted supporting cast helps flesh out the world, even if their roles pale in comparison to Sibyl's. Sandra Huller, star of previous NZIFF hit Toni Erdmann, has a cameo-esque appearance as the beleaguered director with barely disguised contempt for those around her, and Adele Exarchopoulos sells the somewhat overdramatic Margot, whose pregnancy sparks the main events.
The plot stumbles with logical leaps, and despite 90 minutes of build-up, Sibyl's eventual fall from grace is unconvincing and rich with cliché. There are ultimately too many elements around Sibyl and her relationships for the story to work cohesively or sensibly, but Triet and the cast are clearly thriving in their particularly French twist on an age-old genre.
Cast: Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Gaspard Ulliel, Sandra Hüller
Director: Justine Triet
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language & nudity)
Verdict: An erratic, disjointed film to match an erratic, disjointed character