“Keep the drama fictional if you don’t mind!” barks Mika (Sandra Hüller), a film director in “Sibyl” to her wayward cast members. She has a point. Everyone in this stylish, sexy, and conceptually overloaded French drama — available as a virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner Theatre — is melodramatizing their lives as they live them and not caring where the narratives crash into each other.
Most alarmingly, the central character, a chic and tightly wound Parisian psychotherapist named Sibyl (Virginie Efira), has started plagiarizing other people’s lives out of boredom and/or repressed trauma. Paring her practice down to just a few patients at the beginning of Justine Triet’s film, Sibyl intends to get back to her first love, writing. When a young actress, Margot (Adèle Exarchopolous), calls her, desperately unhappy in her affair with a famous film star, the therapist finds the temptation irresistible to crib her client’s psychodrama for her own novel. Write what you know — or in this case what you can analyze in others.
Exarchopolous was the find of “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” (2013), and she does messy, sobby neediness very well. Margot is pregnant by Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), a preening matinee idol in a long-term relationship with his director, Mika, who’s coping with both actors on a film shoot on the volcanic island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. At one point, Sibyl is flown out to the set as psychological support to the suicidal Margot. Mika and the crew assume the therapist is the sanest person there. By then, the audience knows she’s the most delusional.
Aided by Simon Beaufils’s luxuriant wide-screen photography and Laurent Sénéchal’s alternately swooning and plinking suspense music, “Sibyl” is a vacation for the senses and a gathering headache for the brain. The screenplay, by Triet and Arthur Harari (David H. Pickering supplied the English-language dialogue spoken on the island’s film set), piles a lot on the unstable heroine’s plate and then adds even more.
We learn that one of Sibyl’s young daughters (Jeane Arra-Bellanger) was the product of an earlier relationship with the feckless Gabriel (Niels Schneider), who was happy to explicitly reenact the fireside sex scene from “Women in Love” with Sibyl but less inclined to be a dad. The breakup drove the therapist into an alcoholic spiral and AA; Sibyl’s current husband, played by Paul Hamy, is a handsome and supportive nonentity. Her younger sister (Laure Calamy), whose life is going nowhere, actively undermines Sibyl’s mothering skills. Even the heroine’s own psychotherapist (Arthur Harari) thinks she’s crossed a line in her “borrowings” from Margot’s life for her novel. The movie’s like a Patricia Highsmith all-you-can-eat buffet.
But there are choice morsels here. Efira projects a glamorous chill that becomes more sympathetic as her character unravels. Hüller, the beleaguered daughter of “Toni Erdmann” (2016), is touching and funny as the beleaguered film director, at one point jumping off a yacht where the crew is shooting and swimming to shore out of sheer pique. And Stromboli, simmering away in the background, serves as a luscious visual metaphor for all the movie’s psychological games of hide-and-seek. Seventy years ago, the island was the setting for “Stromboli” (1950), on which director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman began their own affair (that resulted, among other things, in Isabella Rossellini). That earlier film and its off-camera drama remain more compelling than anything in the busy and ultimately banal “Sibyl.”
Directed by Justine Triet. Written by Triet and Arthur Harari. Starring Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopolous, Gaspard Ulliel, Sandra Hüller. Available for virtual screening at coolidge.org. In French, with subtitles. 101 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, enthusiastic sex, language)