How Sylvie's Love makes an old-fashioned love story new again
Producer-star Tessa Thompson and writer-director Eugene Ashe talk about crafting the lush romance.
When Sylvie’s Love premiered at Sundance in January, the world was a different place — but writer-director Eugene Ashe’s film takes viewers back even further than early 2020. “I think it’s sort of like a portal,” producer and star Tessa Thompson says of the dreamy midcentury melodrama. “And it’s a movie about love! So in a weird way, maybe it’s the perfect time [for it].”
Thompson stars as Sylvie, a young woman living in New York City in the 1950s whose life is upended the fateful summer she falls for jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). As Sylvie dreams of becoming a TV producer and Robert pursues his music across the world, their paths diverge, but when they meet again after years apart, even having grown up into different people with incompatible lives, their connection remains as strong as ever.
Ashe was initially inspired to write the film by going through old family photo albums. “They told a very different story about Black life than I had seen in films set in the ‘60s, that primarily [centered] the Civil Rights movement and framed us through a different lens than just our humanity,” he tells EW. He wanted to make a classic romance, like Mahogany or The Way We Were, for a new generation, with a film that followed Black characters who live, as everyone does, in a historical context — but without that context becoming the entire story.
“Whenever you see Black folks in the past, you see us in struggle — which is true,” Thompson says. “That’s something that continues to be true, unfortunately. But we were also doing lots of other things, too. We were singing and dancing, and we were making love and we were making dinner. We were celebrating, we were mourning loss — we were doing all these other things, as humans.”
The film differs from its Douglas Sirk-ian predecessors not in style or tone, but in race, and “exactly that, in itself, was powerful,” says Ashe. “It’s not revisionist history in the events, actually; what's revisionist is that we were able to recreate that type of movie with Black characters, and kind of go back and make a film that never got made in the past.”
He was able to recapture a feeling from movie history through extreme attention to detail, from shooting on 16mm film to recording the music — a 65-piece orchestra plays Fabrice Lecomte’s sweeping score, for an effect “reminiscent of Michel Legrand,” Ashe says — to the period costumes, a particular thrill for Thompson, who grew up coveting her glamorous grandmother’s fabulous wardrobe. “As a kid, that was my form of dress-up,” she says. “And now, of course, as an actor, I'm essentially dressing up all the time. But this was the first time I got to really dress up, as an adult, in the things that I grew up dreaming of dressing up in as a child. It's like, by the time I got to actually dress myself, I wasn't going to wear the kind of fabulous things that my grandmother did — including my gloves. I always loved gloves.”
In addition to providing her leading lady with the most elegant gloves she could ever hope for, costume designer Phoenix Mellow was also able to access Chanel’s archive from the ‘60s for some key pieces for Thompson, including an arresting bright blue dress for the opening scene. “We wanted that to feel sort of like a Breakfast at Tiffany’s moment,” says the actress. “That sort of glamour and beauty — we have not often enough gotten to see Black women that way. That was so significant to us.”
Ashe’s indie puts a twist on the classic mold not only by casting it with Black protagonists, but also in remaining faithful to the era without ever becoming dated in its outlook — especially on Sylvie, as a young woman with big dreams, the film’s clear subject and never its object.
“That took some work,” admits Thompson, whose involvement as a producer enabled her to take a more active role in shaping the historically accurate but still thoroughly modern character. “I think that's always the danger with period pieces, that something feels sort of antiquated, and it's harder to draw the line between the protagonist that you're watching on screen on your own experience and those kind of, um, period pieces for me, never really hold my attention, um, because they just don't feel like humans.”
As an actress, it was a challenge for her to find the stylistic “sweet spot” between naturalistic current tastes and the more affected modes of the era, “to make something that captures the spirit [and] sweetness of those films, but also felt like something a modern audience could get behind.”
She needn’t have worried. “You can see how Tessa lives her own life with agency. I think that is inherent in her,” Ashe says. “Nobody else could play Sylvie.”
Sylvie’s Love hits Amazon Prime Video Dec. 23.