Sundance 2020 Review: A Jazz Musician Has a Lot to Play for in Eugene Ashe’s Beautiful “Sylvie’s Love”

At the end of “Sylvie’s Love,” you begin to wonder what would’ve happened if it had actually been made in the time period it was set in during the 1960s when frothy romances could be counted on for escapism, but while projecting a level of aspiration that white Americans could at least imagine when seeing Doris Day and Rock Hudson, it was a dream denied to African-Americans when there weren’t any corresponding Diahann Carroll-Sidney Poitier love stories, and if there’s even an infinitesimal bit of enmity in Eugene Ashe’s lovely melodrama, it’s leaving audiences with the thought of just how much poorer culture has been for no one making a film like ”Sylvie’s Love” until now, the careers that it could’ve fostered and the everyday people it could’ve inspired.

Set at the height of the civil rights movement, but rarely alluding to it, the film tells of Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a jazz saxophonist who is looking for a Thelonious Monk album when he roams into Mr. Jay’s Records, and winds up finding a day job that’ll put him alongside Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), the owner’s daughter who comes by to watch television during the day when her mother, who teaches etiquette lessons won’t fathom having “I Love Lucy” on in the house. The two strike up a fast friendship, but anything more would seem to be out of the question when Sylvie is engaged, with her fiancé off in Korea fighting the war. Still, their relationship blossoms while he’s away, as do their professional prospects as Sylvie takes her first steps towards a career in TV with a producer’s assistant gig at a local cooking show and Robert’s quartet is invited to play a series of shows in Paris.

Since “Sylvie’s Love” opens with a scene five years after the hot and heavy phase of Robert and Sylvie’s courtship, it is safe to say they don’t end up happily ever after, or at least not without significant heartache beforehand, and as deep as the reds and blues of Phoenix Mellow’s rich costume design and Mayne Berke’s luxe sets are, recalling the finest of Douglas Sirk’s technicolor films, the hurt runs even deeper as the couple weigh their individual ambitions against their responsibilities to each other as partners, with the undeniable, easygoing chemistry between Asomugha and Thompson making it all the more impossible to think they could ever be pulled apart.

Ashe has clearly studied the mechanics of how these dramas unfold, but finds the space between honoring tradition and doing something new within their confines, from a carefully curated doo wop soundtrack that instantly puts one in the mood to the refashioning of scenes that one has likely seen before from an entirely new angle, creating one particularly striking image of Sylvie gamely holding a cup of sugar for the host (Wendi Mclendon-Covey) of the cooking show she works on from underneath the counter. The scene, shot from the side revealing the artifice of the set, but also the very real power dynamic at play, is as good an encapsulation as any of how remarkable “Sylvie’s Love” is, a film that is at once a massively satisfying entertainment with this brilliant sight gag finding the humor in its lead’s extreme professional dedication and transcendent in giving her dignity when so often you’d never consider what was going on behind the scenes before. With Ashe’s ability to sweep you away, you still may not give much thought to the construction of the timeless love story that he’s created, but there’s an extra sense of passion when it seems it isn’t just the lovers on screen making up for lost time.

“Sylvie’s Love” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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