Movie Review: Sylvie's Love (2020)

Filled with shiny, almost luridly bright colors and a razor-sharp eye for startling subtext, when master filmmaker Douglas Sirk described one of his philosophies behind such grand '50s melodramas as "All That Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life," and "Written on the Wind," he said, "you have to think with the heart."

It's this piece of advice as well as the stylistic choices made in those opulent films that we think of most when we watch the impressionistically Sirkian works produced by writer-directors Wong Kar-wai and Todd Haynes. Two of contemporary cinema's greatest filmmakers, in addition to Sirk's incredibly influential '50s output, both Wong's "In the Mood for Love" and Haynes' "Carol" feel like they were a major source of inspiration for writer-director Eugene Ashe's new, exquisitely lush period romance "Sylvie's Love," which bows this week on Amazon Prime. 

Set in the late 1950s through the early '60s, "Sylvie's Love" is a passionate celebration of jazz, art, fashion, and above all, swoon-worthy, damn the torpedoes romance. As such, it's a film that thinks with (and is dedicated to) the heart. A stunner for its aesthetic choices alone, "Sylvie's Love" feels like it was made with the same Haynes-like obsessive care that the auteur used to create "Far From Heaven" and "Carol." The result is a work that not only seems like it belongs in the period in which it is set but looks like a long-lost studio venture made in a bygone era as well. 

The type of film which, to use a very 2020 meme-worthy phrase, could be aptly described as "a mood," this sweepingly romantic work centers on two young aspiring creatives who meet and fall in love but take years to get the timing right.

Working in her father's record shop while dreaming of a future producing television, even at a time when such a pursuit seems impossible for a young Black woman, Tessa Thompson's elegant, ambitious Sylvie finds herself falling for her new coworker Robert (played by Nnamdi Asomugha). A gifted up-and-coming jazz tenor saxophonist who only took the job so he could get close to his crush, the chemistry shared by fiery leads Asomugha and Thompson is fiercely compelling. 

Complicating matters, although she's engaged to a man from a wealthy, highly respected family who is currently overseas in the military, Sylvie can't help but respond to the pull she feels to this man who sees her for who she is and admires her dreams for the future, as opposed to merely respecting her family's status or what she represents to him as an acquisition.

Though influenced by '50s era melodramas, "Sylvie's Love" frequently calls up the sights and sounds of Wong Kar-wai's most famous films. We see this first in a shot of Sylvie looking at Robert with longing from the backseat of a cab (which is a motif used throughout Wong's oeuvre) and once again in Ashe's usage of the song, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," which Wong weaponized to intoxicating effect in "In the Mood for Love." While the Nat King Cole version was played in Wong's film, here in "Sylvie's Love," the number is performed by a singer played by Eva Longoria.

A passion project for Ashe, who set out to honor his family's memories and photographs from the period, while the film's narrative arc underwhelms and its resolution is not only rushed but anticlimactic, it's easy to forgive "Sylvie's Love" its missteps because it's such an overwhelmingly gorgeous picture all around.

Shot by Mira Nair's legendary "Monsoon Wedding" cinematographer Declan Quinn, "Sylvie's" buttery visuals put a high gloss sheen on Phoenix Mellow's vintage costumes (which include regal Chanel couture for brand ambassador Tessa Thompson), as well as production designer Mayne Berke's '50s studio backlot built sets of New York City. 

Additionally boasting an enviably impressive score by Fabrice Lecomte, who both used strings similar to the way they work so well in Haynes' Sirkian pictures "Far From Heaven" and "Carol," and also composed all of the bebop numbers for Robert's fictional quartet, the film's handsome production specs will win over jazz fans and classic movie lovers alike.

Giving Black audiences a dizzying, long overdue '50s and '60s era romantic melodrama of their own (despite introducing but then quickly shying away from historical issues regarding race), "Sylvie's Love" is a sumptuously entertaining ode to Black love made by a skilled filmmaker who, just like Douglas Sirk, thinks with his heart.

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