Arriving with grey, murky, fairly nondescript (but perfectly appropriate) cover art, directed by a relative unknown with just a few credits to his name, without the draw of celebrated actors or period-piece nostalgia, Sundays and Cybèle enters the Criterion Collection as one of those titles that will be easy to glide over as we head into the fall of 2014. Sitting alongside crowd-pleasing recent releases like Eraserhead, All That Jazz, Y tu Mamá También and Love Streams, the feature debut of Serge Bourguignon will have a hard time competing for attention, even with an Academy Award and a Palme d’Or on his resume (and both award winners are included here.) And once the powerhouse October lineup starts its roll out, Sundays and Cybèle might get altogether lost in the shuffle. I hope that doesn’t happen, so it’s my job here to make the case that this outstanding and thought provoking film deserves at least a couple hours of your sustained attention, and perhaps even a spot on your home video shelf.
I assume that the majority of readers were like me when Sundays and Cybèle was first announced this past summer – utterly unaware of the movie’s existence or significance, let alone the subject matter of its story. My initial take was one of moderate interest – more simple curiosity rather than genuine anticipation – based on innate trust in Criterion’s judgment and a general appreciation of early 1960s French cinema. The descriptive blurb revealed that it had won an Oscar and that it dealt with a “psychologically damaged war veteran and a neglected child” who “begin a startlingly intimate relationship” that “ignites the suspicion and anger of his friends and neighbors.” Fair enough, I thought. It brought Claude Berri’s 1967 film The Two of Us to my mind – another feature debut by a fairly obscure director exploring a tender and unconventional friendship of a mismatched adult and child that ultimately feels like a rather minor placeholder in the Criterion canon, probably included more for the sake of Michel Simon’s inimitable presence than for the greatness of the movie itself. Would Sundays and Cybèle similarly fade into the woodwork after the novelty wears off?
I certainly can’t forecast a film’s future reputation, but my hunch is that this one will earn a dedicated following. Sundays and Cybèle makes a strong impact across a range of viewers’ considerations: aesthetic, narrative, cinematographic, performance, and most importantly in its remarkable forward reach in addressing cultural concerns that remain as unsettling and provocative as they must have been in 1962 – though perhaps for different reasons than what the film’s original viewers had to wrestle with.
Let’s start with the film’s opening scene, a striking prologue depicting the wartime trauma of Pierre, a French bomber pilot flying a mission in Indochina (soon to enter the American lexicon as Vietnam.) In the process of carrying out his assignment, he makes a fateful mistake, locking eyes with a young girl on the receiving end of his deadly payload. The image of her doomed, terrified face burns itself into his memory, searing his conscience with a crippling blow of anxiety, guilt and ego-preserving denial. Given the year of the film’s release, at a time when the United States’ involvement in southeast Asia was just beginning to coalesce, the sequence (filmed in high saturation contrast with a linear vertical overlay) is eerily prophetic of more explicit horrors and psychological scars to come as the war escalated throughout the decade ahead. Now I’m curious to know if the effects of what we now call PTSD on aerial bomber pilots had ever been portrayed as incisively prior to this film’s release as they were here.
With the root causes of Pierre’s psychic frailty now established, we next meet him after he’s been discharged from military service and is more or less left on his own to find a way back to mental stability. One evening as he’s hanging out at a train station, Pierre has a chance late night encounter with a confused young girl and her furtive, irritable father. A brief but intense exchange of eye contact between Pierre and the girl quickly fuses into some kind of a bond, and he’s compelled to keep as close tabs on the pair as social propriety can allow… maybe just a bit closer, even. Pierre slyly observes as they make their way to the village convent, and takes note of the father’s hasty departure, alone after dropping off the girl. Now he’s hooked… an innocent victim, cruelly abandoned, roughly the same age as that doomed girl he saw screaming through the windshield on his bombing run. She presents a chance for Pierre to help her out and in some way make amends. But how does this fit into the fragments of a life he’s managed to assemble after returning home?
Pierre is still a rough project, presenting little or nothing (beyond good looks reminiscent of Steve McQueen, the original leading man that Bourguignon envisioned for this project, but could never afford) to give confidence that he’ll be well again. While he’s gentle enough to not present much of a physical threat, he remains numb, aloof and non-committal, even though he’s fallen into the pleasant and compassionate companionship of Madeleine, the nurse assigned to his care in his medical recuperation. They live together now, which strikes me (and presumably others) as a rather messy boundary violation for anyone in the nursing profession… but this was the 1960s, when such safeguards weren’t as etched into professional or even legal codes as they are now. Madeleine is attractive, sensual, clearly devoted to helping Pierre in his recovery, despite his erratic behavior – or maybe because of it, in some tragic codependent relational dynamic. For his part, Pierre seems to have enough going on in his mind to recognize the benefit that Madeleine brings to his otherwise socially isolated existence, but he’s reluctant to exert himself enough to fully inhabit the role, or the world, she has in mind for him.
Pierre’s re-entry into society is also supported through a mentoring relationship he has with Carlos, an artist who works with metal and tries to use his craft and the power of music to nudge his drifting protege out of the ether and back to a grounded participation in the social milieu. Carlos is patient, apparently wise and intuitively aware of Pierre’s struggles, though not necessarily brimming with confidence that the effort put into repairing the damage will ultimately bear fruit.
But once Pierre becomes entranced in the friendship that erupts with the young girl whom he comes to know as Francoise (the name given to her by the nuns at the convent, who disapprove of her birth name Cybèle. marred by its pagan etymology), he can no longer conform to Madeleine’s or Carlos’s rehabilitation scheme. Instead, he contrives to develop and sustain a ruse to visit her for a few hours of chaste intimacy every Sunday afternoon… so now you know where the film’s English title comes from. Their meetings are idyllic, magical moments out of time: an extension of a dimly remembered childhood for one partner, and for the other, a miraculous surrogacy of an absent father coupled with a tender courtship for her affection that can only be characterized as “reverent.”
In his effort to capture the cascade of emotions that transpire in the exchanges between Pierre and Cybèle, Bourguignon skillfully treads a line that avoids either the treacly sentimentality that bogged down The Two of Us (at least in my recollection… it’s been a few years) or the more ominous intimations of menacing creepiness that many viewers will reflexively read into the enmeshed relationship between a 30 year old man and a 12 year old girl. The implication of a society that’s either oblivious or to some extent even condoning of amorous connections that teeter on the edge of pedophilia is indeed troubling from the perspective of 2014, given so many recent scandals and horrific stories from survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and a heightened sensitivity toward the topic in general. But Bourguignon and the actors Hardy Krüger and Patricia Gozzi maintain sufficient artistic integrity in their respective tasks to keep us mindful of the fact that nothing inappropriate occurs between Pierre and Cybèle on a physical or sexual level. The most morally dubious behavior consists of Pierre’s secrecy and deceit in arranging their weekly get-togethers, along with a bit of vandalism toward the end of the story that leads to unanticipated consequences. While not entirely harmless, the misdeeds do nothing to tarnish the essential beauty and purity of this friendship between two souls who find respite from the tragedy and injustice of their lives, despite the suspicion and disdain of outside observers. Sundays and Cybèle posits some thorny ethical dilemmas to viewers, at least those who are willing to grant legitimacy to perceived emotional needs and the human contacts who help to fulfill them even when they fall outside the limits of what’s usually considered safe and proper.
But there is so much more to the film that intrigues and satisfies. Henri Decaë’s luminous, impeccable cinematography is at turns hypnotically ethereal or powerfully concrete, as the story fluctuates between the near dream-state that Pierre and Cybèle enter into and the harsh realities from which they can only temporarily escape. Bourguignon was quite fortunate to have such a proven master at the head of his crew, as it gave the director a rather impressive follow-up to Le sourire, the short film that won him recognition at Cannes in 1960. (More on that in a moment.) Likewise, Maurice Jarre’s incorporation of exotic East Asian music into the soundtrack was innovative then and still conjures up a lot of evocative atmosphere today, augmenting Kruger’s skillful and subtle performance as the quietly tormented and disaffected Pierre.
All of these efforts, combined with a strong supporting cast and a screenplay that excels in giving the minor role players tangible concerns and persuasive motivations, converge to create a powerful and beguiling dilemma. What are individuals and a community to do when the pathway to salvation for two lost and lonely souls is based on a relationship that social conventions deem suspicious and ultimately unacceptable? Sundays and Cybèle is not a film that yields tidy and convenient answers to the questions it stirs up, and it’s in that very ambiguity that we discover its forceful beauty.
Adding to the appeal of this skillfully rendered story, Criterion includes a modest array of supplemental interviews that provide additional context and intrigue as we learn of the rift that Sundays and Cybèle provoked in the French cinema scene of that era. The schism wasn’t due to the film’s controversial content, but rather due to the fact that in winning the admiration of critics and the public audience alike, Bourguignon’s film bumped both Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie from the opportunity to represent France in the 1963 Academy Award competition. This was quite an amusing discovery for me, but to be honest, I find myself agreeing with whatever committee was responsible for that decision. (And of course, the fact that Sundays and Cybèle actually did take home the golden statue is the ultimate vindication of their choice.) I think this is a superior film in just about every respect to Jules and Jim (though I doubt that it will ever be as beloved) and as for Vivre sa vie, I think it’s pretty clear that Godard never would have had a chance with the Academy, especially in those years. In any case, the revelation of what looks from this distance like petty infighting between the Cahiers du cinema crowd and the powerful remnant that still upheld the “tradition of quality” in the French film industry provides a healthy and bracing corrective balance for our understanding of what was happening in that scene at the time.
And if all that wasn’t enough to persuade you to give this disc a close look, I offer a few words in praise of Le sourire, the aforementioned short film that earned Serge Bourguignon his first major award at Cannes in 1960 and presumably heralded the beginning of a career that promised more than was ever realized in major cinematic achievements. Translated as “The Smile,” this enchanting 20 minute excursion to Burma functions as something along the lines of a Southeast Asian version of The Red Balloon. It’s labeled a documentary by some, but that description hardly fits this vignette about a young boy dedicated to a Buddhist monastery who trails along the path of a grim and venerable older monk. I was enchanted and delighted by the brief pilgrimage that Bourguignon escorts us through, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself returning to it from time to time in the years ahead. The same can be said of the main feature. There’s even a slightly warped Christmas theme that commends Sundays and Cybèle for future holiday viewing. Put this disc on your December gift list!
Image credits courtesy of DVDBeaver.com