The Critics Academy, a program of Film at Lincoln Center and a venture of Film Comment, is a workshop for aspiring film writers, providing a valuable platform to launch their careers. Throughout the 57th New York Film Festival, Film Comment will be publishing work from young critics taking part in the program.

Saturday Fiction (Lou Ye, 2019)

As if to remind us that the cinema has always been a self-reflexive medium, this year’s New York Film Festival has featured several films that foreground the artistic process itself: Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. In particular, Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction and Justine Triet’s Sibyl weave the subject into their very heart and form. By indulging in these metanarrative homages that call attention to their own cinematic form, these two films play with fictional representations to deceive and distort their composition of reality.

Saturday Fiction, a dusky, smoky neo-noir from Chinese filmmaker by Lou Ye, follows famous actress Jean Yu, returning from Hong Kong to Shanghai in December 1941. Jean’s fictional star power is perhaps outmatched by that of the woman playing her: Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, and Memoirs of a Geisha to name only a few titles in her formidable filmography). Ostensibly, Jean has come back to star in a play which shares the film’s title, directed by and co-starring her old lover Tan Na (Mark Chao), but this performance is an incidental one for her. She lavishes the most time and attention on her role as a spy for the Allied Forces, which she takes up again as soon as she checks into a hotel that doubles as an espionage hub to work with manager Saul (Tom Wlaschiha) and Frédéric Hubert (Pascal Greggory), a philosophical father-figure type. Its disorienting plot, set in the week leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor (a foregone conclusion that quietly permeates every aspect of the film), roils with spy intrigue and sexual politics.

The film quickly establishes a parallel between the stage performance and the performance of espionage. The “Solitary Island” period of Shanghai in Saturday Fiction thrums with the tensions felt by its protagonist. Glistening with ever-present rain and shot in black and white, with a silvery cast that brings to mind nitrate film, the city has a twilit glamour, gilt rubbing off at the edges, glitzy and shabby in equal parts. It, like Jean, has to play many roles: a prosperous cosmopolitan zone honeycombed by occupation from Japanese and French forces. The locations mentioned in the film are (or were) real—the Cathay Hotel, the Lyceum Theater—and along with its historical setting, the lines between fiction and reality blur both within and outside the world of the film.

Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s chimerical, New-Wave-esque handheld camerawork lends itself to destabilizing our understanding of the film’s reality. After (or during—it’s not clear) one rehearsal, the camera casually follows after Tan until he spots Jean in the aftermath of a scuffle; as the two flee through the streets, it takes off after them, jostling with the headiness and exuberance of Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim. Later, in a hypnotic seduction that smacks of the brainwashed dizziness of The Manchurian Candidate, Jean performs her last role to wrest Japanese military codes out of a delirious and drug-addled Captain Saburo (Joe Odagiri). The perspective shifts between Jean’s deception of Saburo (filmed with camerawork that swoons in an oneiric, Maya-Deren-esque quality) and Saul and Frédéric watching her performance from behind a one-way mirror, listening in over a static-filled radio. A moment such as this, where things are lost in the translation of performances, underscores a crucial weak link in the Allies’ chain of information. The ending wades through a prolonged paranoid stand-off pierced with intermittent violence before settling on an exhausted, dreamy lull—the calm before the storm. We know the inevitable catastrophe that Jean’s deception (her personal “Saturday fiction”) will point to the next day: Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Sibyl (Justine Triet, 2019)

Characterized by a wildly different style and handling a subject vastly removed from that of Lou Ye’s film, Justine Triet’s Sibyl nevertheless also foregrounds the interplay between fiction and reality in its depiction of the artistic process. This confident and witty portrait by the French director juggles comic melodrama with wistful arthouse abstraction, erotic nostalgia, neurotic eccentricities, and a genuine undercurrent of warmth. The title character (Virginie Efira), a psychotherapist who has decided to quit the job to focus on writing her novel, plunges inadvertently into the life of Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color), a young actress who begs for Sibyl’s advice over a turbulent affair with co-star Igor (Gaspard Ulliel). Toeing (or rather stumbling across) the lines that divide plagiarism, appropriation, exploration, and creation, Sibyl records their sessions as material for her manuscript. After Igor tells his wife and the film’s director Mika (Sandra Hüller), about the affair, Sibyl becomes fully embroiled in Margot’s life as her desperate and codependent client clings to her in the wake of the fallout.

Unlike Saturday Fiction, Sibyl keeps its film-within-a-film as a distinct, discrete component of the narrative for its audience. Instead, Triet blurs that line for Sibyl herself, whose fixation on Margot’s life nearly destroys her own, unearthing old loves, old pains, and old habits: emphasizing the consequences of exploitation on the exploiter rather than the exploited. Reliant on Margot for material, Sibyl is ushered into the production of the film—flown to the volcanic island it’s set on, consulted for every scene, invited to all the parties. She even directs an erotic scene between Margot and Igor when Mika flounces off in a perfectly timed comic bit. Seeing her own life and those around her as sources for her fiction, Sibyl inevitably finds that real life and the people who populate it take on an unreal, fictitious quality. The end result is a chillingly self-imposed alienation, a rejection of any real emotional intimacy.

The name “Sibyl” brings to mind a fortune-teller or an oracle—someone, at least, with some prophetic inclination. Yet the Sibyl of Justine Triet’s film cannot divine the future; rather, she’s plagued by the past and fixated on plagiarizing the present. She’s, in a word, lost because of her inability to separate art from reality. Like Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, Triet’s film locates the anxious pulse coursing through the cinematic form, calling attention to itself as fiction. Both Jean and Sibyl attempt to leverage their fictional art as real deception to ultimately disastrous effect. Watching these films, one is made aware of how malleable and messy—yet how ultimately necessary—the boundary between reality and fiction truly is.

Michelle Chow is a critic based in New York.