After winding its way through film festivals around the world since premiering at Cannes in 2019, Justine Triet’s Sibyl is now available to screen in the United State through limited-capacity theaters and at-home virtual cinemas. And the film, about a therapist trying to become a writer despite one last client who refuses to let her go (and vice-versa), is a serviceable option as a bit of an escape from the dreary, nearly-fall chill that’s recently set in over Chicago. But the script, which Triet co-wrote with Arthur Harari, is a bit too confused—despite the title—about whose film this is exactly, and it comes quite close to being stolen entirely by a supporting performance from the electric Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, In the Aisles).
The Sibyl of the title (Virginie Efira, Elle) is the therapist, also a wife and mother of two, who’s wrapping up work with her existing patients to finally write the novel she’s been planning to pen for years. On her last day of seeing clients, she receives an unexpected call from Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color), a woman in distress who was referred to Sibyl through the hospital service with which she’s affiliated. Though she tries to defer Margot best she can, the woman is clearly in need of professional help, sobbing on the phone and desperate to speak to someone. With her professional instincts triggered, Sibyl agrees to meet with Margot and try to help.
It’s clear early on that Margot, an actress, is going to be a complicated case, and soon she’s consumed more of Sibyl’s life than any patient has a right to with their therapist. Even Sibyl’s own therapist tells her to back off, to separate herself from an unhealthy situation, but for some reason, she’s hooked. Margot shares that she’s entangled in an on-set relationship with her co-star and finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, turning to Sibyl for direction on what to do about it. So stricken with insecurity and co-dependency, she begs Sibyl to come to set with her, where she meets the film’s no-nonsense director, Mika (Hüller). With zero patience for Margot’s issues (compared to Sibyl’s seemingly endless reserve of it), Hüller’s filmmaker is all business, trying to draw the performances she needs out of her temperamental actors while keeping the whole production running smoothly. Hüller’s explosive presence in an otherwise subdued (though terribly sexy) film is a jolt of energy, a performance that clearly knows its place in the story’s dynamic where other, more central ones seem to not.
Efira’s Sibyl is often as confused, tormented and susceptible to poor decisions as her patient, though the film spends so much time elsewhere there’s never enough time to understand why she makes the choices she does or what she’s trying to prove to herself. With a partner and doting daughters at home (hoo, is there a backstory there!), she’s going through some stuff, as they say, recalling (quite vividly) a past love of her own and the scars still on her broken heart years later. Triet ultimately doesn’t deliver the film she perhaps intended to, with a title dedicated as it is to what is supposed to be the main character.
Often sultry, always dramatic and featuring that buzzy performance from Hüller, there’s certainly quite a bit to make Sibyl enough to enjoy once. It’s certainly not worth going to the theater in the middle of a pandemic to see. What’s more, the likelihood that the otherwise messy ensemble piece, with its characters’ confounding decisions and lack of overall focus, will be remembered much beyond one viewing is quite low.