Criterion: Sundays and Cybele
SUNDAYS AND CYBELE, SERGE BOURGUIGNON, 1962
One thing I love about Criterion is they manage to balance title releases based on popularity and credibility. Rather than just sticking to top selling auteurs for every release, they’ll often pull a movie out of obscurity and allow it to be rediscovered, even if that means it won’t sell as well as Ford or a Lynch. Sundays and Cybele is hardly obscure, having won international acclaim at the time of its release, including an Oscar win. Yet, for an early 1960s release during the height of the French New Wave, plenty of other films overshadow it. Unlike his contemporaries who enjoyed lengthy, prosperous careers, Serge Bourguignon mostly disappeared into obscurity, his career all but dead by the end of the decade.
Sundays and Cybele is almost the antithesis of a French New Wave film, which may explain why it is such an outlier in the movement. It is slower, more poetic, less spontaneous, and more deliberate. It has more in common with Bresson than Godard, and it dabbles into a darker and less fanciful theme than most would care to engage.
Pierre (Hardy Krüger) is a shell-shocked veteran of the Indochina War, racked with guilt for possibly killing a young girl civilian. He has amnesia and struggles with a return to ordinary life. His former nurse Madeline (Nicole Courcel) becomes his lover and caretaker, yet he his progress with her has limits. It’s through a chance encounter at a train station with Françoise/Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi) that he finds his anchor. She is a 12-year old girl, abandoned at the boarding school, basically an orphan, and he poses as her father to visit her every Sunday. What follows is a friendship and, in a unique way, a romance, yet does not quite reach the level of pedophilia.
The film is visually stunning, thanks to some unconventional shot selections and the camerawork of Henri Decaë (who oddly enough had made his career shooting New Wave films). Most of these shots were visual representation of the disconnection with society and the haziness within Pierre’s persona. For example, there’s one tracking shot that shows the reflection of the street through a vehicle side mirror. As the vehicle climbs a hill, we eventually see Pierre walking, and the shot continues with the driver getting out of the car. There is another excellent shot when Pierre is having lunch with Madeline and her friends, when he gets up and wipes a circle in the fogged up window, where two horse riders are interacting on the other side of a pond. Not only were these shots gorgeously photographed, but they were precisely choreographed. These were but two of many that likely took a lot of thinking and staging, and the execution resulted in a strikingly original looking film.
There are several motifs throughout the film, but the one that impressed me the most was the use of glass, mirrors, and how it interacted with the photography. Glass objects are used as props, and at one point in the lunch scene, the camera takes Pierre’s perspective as he looks at his companions through a wine glass, again showing his distorted worldview with filmic elements.
The relationship between Pierre and Cybele is complicated. He is continually infantilized. Even Cybèle playfully observes that “deep down you’re like a lost child.” She unmistakably loves him in a romantic way, at least as much as she understands of love at her age. His responses are affectionate, yet he stops short of vocally acknowledging her interpretation of their relationship. She is his conduit to his inner self, and he is possessive of her affections, yet is actual intentions are unclear the audience, as they likely are to himself. She daydreams of marrying him when she is 18 and he is 36, which might have happened if the relationship were able to progress. To further complicate matters, he finds himself romantically impotent towards Madeline. Cybèle is the one who fulfills him, while his lover leaves him empty.
Even though this is a gorgeous film with richly drawn characters, it has some storytelling problems getting to the final act. The film plods when Pierre disappears and Madeline recruits Bernard to help find him. The finale is temporally out of synch, as we learn of the outcome before we see it. While that results in an effective scene, with Madeline’s reaction seamlessly cutting to Cybèle’s, it is makes the ending less impactful and somewhat unsatisfying.
Film Rating: 7.5
Serge Bourguignon interview. Much of the time is spent discussing the film and it’s themes, but I thought the most interesting aspect of the interview was hearing him explain why his career ended. He seems to think it was due in large part to the jealousy of the New Wave filmmakers for his American success and the Oscar. It sounds like there were some disagreements, and he acknowledges that some of the problems may have been his own fault.
Patricia Gozzi interview. Her experience is also interesting because she was such a young actress, and this was her first significant role. She also disappeared from acting approximately a decade later, yet she does not give her reasons (I believe it was for marriage). Her relationship with Krüger was a close friendship, and that translated to the screen. I wonder if she grasped the taboo nature of their relationship during the filming. That’s another topic she doesn’t address.
Hardy Krüger interview. Krüger is undoubtedly the most successful of those involved with this project, having gone on to do major American pictures like Hatari, Flight of the Phoenix, and Barry Lyndon. He remembers the production fondly. Even though they initially wanted Steve McQueen in his role he made it his own and was proud of the movie and its success. He was living in Africa at the time of the Oscars, so had to learn of the win via a telegram, but the excitement was not lost on him.
Le sourire: This documentary short won the Palme d’Or and ultimately launched Bourguignon’s theatrical career. It is a 20-minute short about Buddhists in Burma. You can see here how his slower, poetic approach to filmmaking originated. The film displayed the physical beauty of the temples and the people, while conveying their spirituality and purity. Having lived in Thailand when I was younger, this was quite familiar to me. In a way it felt like a trip to the past, so my rating might be a little biased, but I absolutely loved the short.
Criterion Rating: 9/10