Sultry music swells as the camera swoons over a young couple in a tender nighttime embrace. The 1950s residential New York City street is carefully rain-slicked and lined with shiny classic cars. Gene Kelly might just have swung on that lamppost; Doris Day might lean out of an upstairs window to sigh at a painted moon. But the nestling stars of Eugene Ashe’s film Sylvie’s Love are Black, which is among the sole indications that this weightlessly glossy yet undeniably charming romance is a product of the 21st century, which might explain a thing or two. From Declan Quinn’s sumptuously old-school, 16mm cinematography and the throwback styling and stock footage exteriors that deliberately mimic the old school MGM romances of old, they come together for the film’s fantasy-bubble, anachronistic storytelling that makes this film a small act of retroactive redress enough of a reason to make such a wildly old-fashioned period romance.
Tessa Thompson, charismatic as ever, stars as the titular Sylvie, the strong-willed daughter of kindly music store owner Mr. Jay (Lance Reddick). One day while at work in the store, she catches the eye of struggling (but crazy talented) jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), who takes a job in the store just to be near her. Sylvie, however, is engaged to rich, conveniently absent Lacy (Alano Miller) which is the first of several not-terribly-insurmountable obstacles that the obviously predestined couple keep creating for themselves so that their love story, which Sylvie dreamily calls “extraordinary,” can hit a few speed bumps and we get to have a feature-length movie.
Sylvie is obsessed with television and wants to be a producer, a tricky ambition for a Black woman in the late ’50s, one that her father chuckles at incredulously but which actually ends up sailing pretty smoothly for her. Meanwhile Robert’s band acquires a vampish new manager (Jemima Kirke), and she lands the band a gig in Paris at just the moment that Sylvie discovers she’s pregnant with Robert’s baby — information which, in one of those “only in the movies” contrivances, she decides to keep from him so he can fulfill his professional potential of becoming the next John Coltrane. Then, five years pass and Sylvie is now married to Lacy, who is nobly raising her daughter as his own but who rubs up against her dedication to her job producing a TV cooking show. Robert is a big success, and a chance encounter inevitably rekindles their extraordinary love. Then a bunch more stuff just sort of has to happen, including a few more acts of clunky and pointless self-sacrifice, before Fabrice Lecomte’s lush score can crescendo in tandem with the rising final crane shot and a grand “The End” can fade up.
Sylvie’s Love is though filled with eye candy — Phoenix Mellow’s delicious costuming and Mayne Berke Thompson’s vintage production design are vivid throughout. Thompson’s hairstyles alone, from her pixie cut to her hairbend-embellished ’60s career-woman bob are worth the price of entry. But it’s a bit of a waste of its painstakingly re-created period that the narrative is so glib. From its wasted supporting cast to its unambiguous streak, the film is as well struck with plotting that is a facile confluence of coincidence, epitomized by a sequence during which a character dies, an engagement is announced, a life-changing secret revealed, a promotion landed and the seeds of professional discord sown, all occurring during a single New Year’s Eve.
Then again the film is also an example of how not every movie about the Black experience has to detail realistic hardships, and if you’re looking for a film of a similar vein that brings much more texture and honesty, there’s Barry Jenkins’ masterful If Beale Street Could Talk. But by contrast, Sylvie’s Love feels like a film the certainly wouldn’t have been made in the ’60s; It’s as if Ashe clicked his heels three times on a studio soundstage in Burbank and wished away the past fifty years of Hollywood filmmaking — and the movie gods were all listening and made his wish come true. And sure, that has the possibility to be misguided, but Ashe here finds enough warm, rich and graceful passages to make the film worth while. With its deflating third act withstanding, Sylvie’s Love finds classical lushness and tenderhearted charms for a reasonably well-pitched jazzy melodrama.
Sylvie’s Love screened at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release the film on Amazon Prime Video on December 25