Of all the crystalline moments I cherish in Princess Cyd, which is playing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, one particular shot stands out: Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), a novelist in her 50s, is walking out to sunbathe in her backyard, wearing a purple swimsuit she hadn’t remembered owning for years; by her side is her 17-year-old niece, Cydney (Jessie Pinnick), who’s staying with her for a couple weeks. Writer-director Stephen Cone presents their walk in slow-motion and accompanies it with a burst of bright classical music. While these devices are inherently cinematic, their combined effect feels more novelistic in nature. One is made aware of how the characters are internalizing the moment, with Miranda recapturing a forgotten memory and Cydney (or Cyd, as everyone calls her) creating a new, lasting one, sunbathing on this lawn at this house on the north side of Chicago for the second time.
Something else is happening in this shot: a relationship between Miranda and Cyd is starting to blossom. Princess Cyd is a film about those meaningful friendships that can reshape us as individuals, and in moments like these, Cone illustrates how such friendships take form. Witness how Miranda, a solitary woman by nature, comes out of her shell just a bit, emboldened by Cyd to do something outside her routine. As the scene progresses, Cyd provokes her aunt further, asking Miranda about her sex life while they lie on the lawn. Miranda isn’t bashful—she admits to her past experiences and to the fact that she’s been celibate for the last five years. Yet saying this aloud takes Miranda aback; later on, she studies herself naked in a mirror, as if rediscovering herself as a sexual being. Cyd is discovering herself sexually for the first time—she has a boyfriend back home in South Carolina, but she’s taken romantic interest in a girl she’s met at a coffee shop in Chicago—and one of the subtle pleasures of Princess Cyd is watching Cyd’s development in parallel to Miranda’s.
Cone realizes the narrative arc so subtly that when I first watched Princess Cyd, I was reminded of the films of Eric Rohmer, specifically A Tale of Springtime (1989), which also follows the relationship between an older woman and a younger one. As in Rohmer’s films, the developments in Princess Cyd mostly have to do with the characters’ inner lives; Cone charts Miranda and Cyd as they come to understand themselves—and each other—a little better. The movie also recalls Rohmer’s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1986) in its pairing of two women with distinctly different lifestyles. Miranda is an introverted intellectual while Cyd is an outgoing jock, and Cone conveys the pleasures of both women’s routines and hobbies. He also hints at the limitations of each woman’s lifestyle, most notably during an argument between the two leads when Cyd mocks Miranda for her celibacy and Miranda chastises Cyd for her anti-intellectualism. Even though the characters remain polite, this scene feels deeply emotional, a reflection of Cone’s nuanced direction of actors.
If Princess Cyd evokes Rohmer on the whole, from moment to moment it more closely resembles the work of another major French filmmaker, André Téchiné (Hôtel des Amériques, My Favorite Season, Thieves, The Witnesses). Cone’s use of music and camera movements add a romantic aura to the story, inviting viewers to savor details of character and setting. (The north side of Chicago is especially green and lovely in Princess Cyd; the neighborhoods in which it takes place feel alive with possibility.) And like Téchiné, Cone establishes certain mysteries about his characters that he purposely never resolves. The first thing we learn about Cyd is that she was nine years old when her mother and brother died in a gruesome incident. Following this bit of exposition, Cone cuts to a scene of Cyd, now 17, at soccer practice and clearly invested in the activity. There’s a sense of life at work, of Cyd’s mourning, rebirth, and return to the everyday world. We also know that, having survived an extraordinary, traumatic incident, her life has been shaped in ways that many of us can’t relate. And what about Miranda? What led her to value solitude so highly? In a couple of early scenes, Cone uses slow zooms that bring Miranda and Cyd from the background to the forefront of the shot—the device conveys a curiosity about the characters, a longing to understand them better.
I should disclose that I’ve known Cone for years, and that many of our conversations have revolved around Téchiné. For Cone, Téchiné is one of the great filmmakers, an artist who’s developed a unique view of human nature as well as a distinctive cinematic language with which to express it. His characters change the course of their lives suddenly and randomly, and they act on sexual impulses just as wantonly. Yet their behavior is always relatable on some level, as Téchiné, like a great novelist, invests his characters with rich inner lives. His stories ultimately speak to the great mysteries of human nature: Why do we fall in love with the people we do? What compels us to pursue our interests and not others? Do our pasts define us or are we dynamic beings, changing according to the times, our surroundings, our impulses?
Princess Cyd explores these questions with fervor, although its characters may not change as drastically as Téchiné’s do. Still, the developments the movie observes are lasting ones; you sense at the end that Miranda and Cyd are going to approach others differently based on the encounter they’ve had with each other. Moreover, the characters know that they’ve evolved—Cone’s women are self-aware, articulate, and in tune with their feelings, and their conversations reflect these qualities. It’s so nice to hear people express themselves as they do in Princess Cyd. The dialogue conveys an honesty about emotions that’s rare in American movies. The characters discover things about themselves as they talk, and Cone invites you to share in the discoveries with them.