Sundays and Cybèle: Innocent Love?

The first feature film by the then thirty-three-year-old Serge Bourguignon, Sundays and Cybéle created an international sensation in the autumn of 1962. This was due in part to the unusual circumstances of its release, and in part to its potentially scandalous subject, a love story—albeit a platonic one—between a thirty-year-old man and a twelve-year-old girl.

Bourguignon had studied painting and sculpture before attending the IDHEC film school in Paris. After graduating, he made a number of documentary films shot in exotic locations, one of which, Le sourire, about a Buddhist monk, won the short film Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1960. For his first feature, he loosely adapted a 1958 novel by Bernard Eschassériaux called Les dimanches de Ville-d'Avray. It was first screened in early September 1962 at the Venice Film Festival, where, though not in the main competition, it received a rapturous reception and a special mention by the jury, as well as the Prix Maschere. There followed a world premiere in New York in mid-November—even though the film still had no distributor in France. American critics adored Sundays and Cybèle, which earned the supreme accolade of “masterpiece" from New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, along with, the following year, the Oscar for best foreign language film. American enthusiasm for the film quickly led to French distribution later that November. As Bourguignon recounted in a Cahiers du cinéma interview a few years later: “Two days after the premiere in New York and the buzz around the film, five Parisian theaters wanted to show it that had previously turned it down."

In contrast to the international excitement, the reception in France was distinctly more nuanced. Although some critics waxed lyrical about the poetry of the images, the tasteful treatment of the subject, and the performances Bourguignon elicited from his actors, there were dissenting voices and a few quite vicious attacks, often around the same subjects. This was in line with the deeply divided positions typical of the New Wave era critical climate. Where some saw visual poetry, others talked of mannerism; what for some was sensitivity was for others preciousness; and the cultured aura of the film, including its use of classical music, was in certain quarters considered pretentious. Contributing to the film's notoriety was an acrimonious exchange in the press between Bourguignon and Eschassériaux. The novelist resented derogatory remarks about his book by some critics, who compared it to a Série Noire novel, and he felt his contribution to the film's success had been marginalized. Such arguments may appear remote fifty years later, yet, beyond battles over authorship and critical score settling, they remain relevant if only as a symptom of the deeply disquieting effect the film has on the spectator.

Sundays and Cybèle tells the tragic story of Pierre (Hardy Krüger), a thirty-year-old former pilot in the colonial wars who suffers from amnesia, and his relationship with a twelve-year-old girl known as Françoise but whose real name is Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi). Pierre lives in Ville-d'Avray, a residenttial suburb of Paris near Versailles, with his mistress, Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), the nurse who treated him on his return from the war. One evening, he witnesses a man dropping off his daughter—Cybèle—at a religious orphanage, evidently against the girl's will. An exchange of gazes, shot in close-up, shows him being touched by her distress, especially when he discovers that the father has no intention of returning. Pierre tells the nuns that he is the girl's father, and he returns the following Sunday to take her out for the afternoon. The story then unfolds over several Sundays that chart the development of Pierre and Cybèle's relationship into passionate, though chaste, love, under the increasingly disapproving eyes of onlookers. Madeleine and Pierre's friend Carlos (Daniel Ivernel), a sculptor, are more sympathetic, but they cannot prevent the tragic denouement.

While “pedophilia" is never explicitly referred to in Sundays and Cybèle, to the spectator of today, it is a constant subtext, present throughout the film in a manner that is both pervasive and oblique. Part of this ambiguity comes from our different awareness of the issue today, and part from the process of adaptation. Bourguignon removed the novel's explicit references to pedophilia in Pierre's murky past; he also deleted the criminal environment surrounding Pierre. What he retained quite faithfully, on the other hand, was the central relationship between Pierre and Cybèle. This is portrayed, as it is in the novel, as innocent and natural, a perspective critics at the time endorsed nearly unanimously, writing of the “pure" love of the protagonists. (In fact, that term was bandied about so often that it begins to sound like denial.) Sundays and  Cybèle is keen to emphasize the notion of a harmless and guilt-free bond between the two characters. First, Pierre and Cybèle are presented as children; Bourguignon, indeed, called his film “the story of childhood recovered and childhood preserved." Pierre, despite being an adult, is depicted as a benign, dreamy, and innocent figure—another significant difference from the book, in which he is capable of brutal violence. Second, Pierre and Cybèle's encounters take place mainly around the beautiful woods of Ville-d'Avray and its string of lakes, and much is made of the links between Cybèle and nature, starting with her name, which designates an “earth mother" goddess from antiquity, as well as the couple's pronounced love of trees and water, repeatedly underlined by both dialogue and cinematography. Third, the film explains Pierre's actions in a way that diminishes his responsibility. The opening of the film, composed of documentary footage of warfare in Asia, shows his trauma to be war-induced, rather than the result of the criminal violence of the novel; a shot of a young Asian girl's terrorized face suggests that he is about to kill her, and thus casts the relationship with Cybèle as expiation for his war crime. Finally, the construction of point of view contributes to making the bond between Pierre and Cybèle acceptable. While the spectator witnesses the platonic nature of their relationship, and the saintly Madeleine and the artistic Carlos are consistently supportive, disapproval comes from highly unsympathetic outsiders who mock or taunt Pierre. As a result, even when he briefly turns violent at one point, we sympathize with him as a victim of persecution.

The film convincingly absolves Pierre because he is, deep down, a “child." More difficult to accept is the way that it makes Cybèle a mini-adult. Patricia Gozzi was twelve years old when she made the film, and physically looks her age. Yet her strangely sophisticated talk transforms her into a child-woman. In addition to her repeated “I love yous" and stated wish to marry Pierre when she is eighteen, the film skews the register of her dialogue away from a child's language, with such literary phrases as “Au fond tu es un enfant perdu" (Deep down, you are a lost child) or the coquettish tone of such sentences as “Pierre, est-ce que tu serais jaloux?" (Pierre, would you by any chance be jealous?), which it is hard to imagine coming from a twelve-year-old. In this respect, critic Françoise Giroud may have had a point when she wondered whether the necessary concision of the English subtitles had indirectly helped the film's wider reception in the U.S. The film, in any case, subtly projects on Cybèle a disturbing view of adult womanhood. At one point, Pierre is told that Cybèle is ill, and he finds her in the orphanage infirmary. There, she sulks and then vents her anger at having seen him with Madeleine, the dialogue of a jealous woman in a child's mouth creating a jarring effect. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the only critic of 1962 to pick up on this view of femininity was Giroud, one of the few women to write about the film. As she noted in L'express, “The slightest word pronounced by the little girl betrays a possessive, castrating will—visible even more clearly in the mistress." Pierre thus is not just the prisoner of his own post-traumatic mental state (poetically evoked when we see him in one of Carlos's beautiful cages) but also of controlling women; against this background, his recourse to phallic symbols makes more sense (stealing a dagger and then the cockerel-shaped weather vane from the church's spire).

Sundays and Cybèle is testimony to the historical determinants of film reception. Where most people at the time saw a struggle between the innocent world of childhood and cynical, sordid “society," today we may be more inclined to see an adult abusing his power to seduce a child bereft of fatherly love, however innocent his intentions. Yet Sundays and Cybèle is also aesthetically rewarding and emotionally affecting. We do believe in the innocence of Pierre's intentions toward Cybèle; we are moved by the girl's vulnerability as her father abandons her; we feel compassion for Madeleine as she spies on Pierre and Cybèle walking through the woods hand in hand. One reason for the emotional power of the film is undoubtedly Hardy Krüger's performance. Against the odds, his naturalistic acting style and youthful good looks render him an attractive character, while his slight German accent elegantly emphasizes his “otherness." Another reason is the way Bourguignon embeds the encounters between Pierre and Cybèle in a poetic evocation of the natural environment of Ville-d'Avray, splendidly served by Henri Decaë's cinematography. Similar to his beautiful wintry landscapes in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le silence de la mer (1949), the film that made both director and cinematographer famous, Decaë's elegiac views of the lakes and woods of Ville-d'Avray in Sundays and Cybèle justify the implicit comparison with Corot's paintings of the same area (which one character mentions).

Decaë's cinematography here also connects the film, however loosely, to the French New Wave. Decaë worked on such New Wave classics as Claude Chabrol's Le beau Serge (1958) and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), among others—films also notable for the beauty of their sober yet lyrical black-and-white photography. Histories of the New Wave do not, on the whole, consider Sundays and Cybèle as part of the movement, and opinions at the time were equivocal. The London Times of December 30, 1962, mentioned it alongside such other titles from that year as Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie, Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7, and Truffaut's Jules and Jim. Similarly, a retrospective piece in Cahiers du cinéma in January 1965 included Bourguignon in its roundup of interviews with the new generation of French directors. At the same time, other reviewers praised Bourguignon for not making a New Wave film. While extensive use of location shooting, elliptical narration, and a “modern" subject link Sundays and Cybèle to the New Wave, its female lead is far from the sensual and romantic women played by the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Jean Seberg, and Anna Karina. And with his traumatic link with the past, Pierre is some distance from the hedonistic figures of modernity embodied by Jean-Paul Belmondo, for instance.

Moreover, Bourguignon's subsequent trajectory sharply diverged from those of Truffaut, Godard, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Varda, et al., all of whom forged long and successful careers. The international triumph of Sundays and Cybèle led to approaches from Hollywood, but his two films there were not a success, despite their evident originality. The Reward (1965), an international coproduction starring Max von Sydow, has garnered a cult following as a noir western but is generally thought of as a failure. The Picasso Summer (1969) is an even greater oddity. Based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, it concerns a self-doubting artist (Albert Finney) who takes his wife (Yvette Mimieux) to the South of France in search of Picasso. The Picasso Summer mixes live-action scenes with vivid animation of Picasso works. But the production was riddled with conflicts, notably between Bourguignon and Bradbury, leading to some of Bourguignon's live-action scenes being reshot by Robert Sallin. While the film is worth rediscovering, at the time, it ended Bourguignon's career as a director. (In between these two American films, he returned to France to make one of Brigitte Bardot's late films, 1967's Two Weeks in September.)

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Sundays and Cybèle sank from view, only to resurface in an era when its subject is likely to provoke unease, even as the film elicits admiration for its aesthetics and touching performances. Yet this strange, melancholy, and beautiful film deserves to be seen again, not, like Bourguignon's subsequent films, as a curiosity, but as an original and brave attempt at putting on-screen some of the most complex and difficult human feelings.

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