By Jude Warne.
On April 8th 1963, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, it was announced that Serge Bourguignon’s film Sundays and Cybèle had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Fifty-one years later, Criterion has re-released Bourguignon’s Oscar winner in a remarkably satisfying Blu-ray package that showcases an immaculate 2K digital restoration of the film, as well as an assortment of intriguing special features.
Narratively, Sundays and Cybèle, based on Bernard Eschasseriaux’s novel, weaves an emotional story with a light touch, disarming the viewer with its raw, honest beauty. Pierre (Hardy Krüger) is a recent veteran of the French Indochina War suffering from amnesia, misdirected emotional outbursts and other elements of PTSD. He believes that he may have killed a young girl during the war and is dealing with this possibility’s psychological and moral repercussions. Pierre’s ex-nurse now-girlfriend Madeleine (Nicole Courcel) frets over him and struggles to reacclimatize him into normal life. By an odd and fateful series of miscommunications, Pierre begins to pose as a deserted girl’s father at a nearby school, visiting her on Sundays and taking her out around the Ville-d’Avray suburb of Paris. This deserted girl is Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi).
Sundays and Cybèle demonstrates undeniably piercing insight into the child’s universe, a place where all things, grand and miniscule, are on the same level of importance. Both Cybèle and Pierre are children: innocent and honest to a fault, and in need of parental figures to guide them. Pierre has his Madeleine who acts as constant caretaker for him in a practical sense, but she cannot reach his damaged emotional core. Madeleine is not on Pierre’s level, but Cybèle is. Cybèle’s parents have deserted her and thus she looks to Pierre for closeness and love. The film is largely about how our existence in part depends on, and is essentially validated by, our emotionally intimate relationships with other people. In one scene, Cybèle says that Pierre gives her a name through his presence, that he gives her herself, and that if she were to lose him, she would lose her identity (this profession of identity origin is rendered all the more heartbreaking by the gorgeous and tragic last scene of the work). Sundays also centers on the frustrating feeling of being misunderstood, as children often feel and are. Like the Frankenstein monster, the childlike, including Cybèle and Pierre, operate on a different plane from most mature and developed adults; they possess different desires, needs and manners of executing will, for they are more instinctual and less inclined to judge themselves against societal expectations of behavior.
Pierre’s self-conviction of possibly murdering a young girl during the French Indochina War urges him forward in his relationship with Cybèle. She offers him a second chance at giving love and life to a young girl, allowing Pierre an opportunity for atonement. In an early scene, Pierre and Madeleine discuss the definition of a ruined life, and Madeleine states that it’s when a person didn’t get what he wanted. This idea is an undercurrent that runs throughout Sundays, causing the viewer to constantly reflect upon the power of individual freedom, as well as the power that we hold over each other to allow or inhibit mutual freedom to get what we want. Pierre and Cybèle, and perhaps all children, face oppression from adults who think they know better than they do about what indeed is best for them. In Cybèle’s case, these are her neglectful father and icy schoolteachers; in Pierre’s case, it is Madeleine and her friends from the hospital, and other townspeople who misinterpret the relationship between Cybèle and Pierre as inappropriate and dangerous.
One major PTSD symptom that Pierre struggles with throughout the film is vertigo. Pierre’s friend Carlos (Daniel Ivernel) tells him that when his vertigo is cured, he will be cured in totality. Carlos also predicts that trees will help Pierre, and help him they do: Cybèle tells us that her name is taken from the name of Cybele, a goddess of the trees and earth. She and Pierre spend most Sundays in a nearby tree-filled park, whose pond is what Cybèle calls their real home. This body of water is their joined soul, and it is home for them, their proximity to it cleansing, clarifying and restorative. Throughout the film there are numerous shots of reflections of water or glass, some distorted: reflections in the park pond’s ripples, in truck review mirrors, through windowpanes and wine glasses, and through a fish bowl in a gypsy caravan. These reflections serve as aesthetic articulations of Pierre’s damaged and murky inner self, a self with components detached from one another.
Criterion’s restored Blu-ray sets forth intense black and white pristineness, enhancing Henri Decaë’s extraordinary cinematography. Sundays and Cybèle is filled to its brim with beautifully framed shots, some of which are frontal and thus enticingly disarming to the viewer (the best of these is a straight-on shot of Cybele’s charmingly earnest face smiling into the camera upon first meeting Pierre). Included on the new Criterion release are interviews with Bourguignon, Krüger and Gozzi, Bourguignon’s 1960 Palme d’Or-winning short doc Le sourire, and an insightful critical essay by Ginette Vincendeau. Bourguignon’s Oscar winning film is wistful, at times somber, a frank reminder of human vulnerability – but even more it is a sensitive and resonant depiction of the capacity for intimate human connection when it is most needed.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Sundays and Cybèle was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.