Sunday, Bloody Sunday is a film about . . . what? Love? Obsession? Homosexuality? Heterosexuality? Bisexuality? Masochism? The horrors of societal convention? The existential condition? Telephones?
The possibilities are infinite—and still, after twenty years, infinitely intriguing. Despite the fact that society has become fairly unshockable in the two decades since John Schlesinger’s controversial masterpiece made moviegoers squirm with its bold, bleak portrayal of unrequited love, gay and otherwise, Sunday, Bloody Sunday is as jolting and thought-provoking as ever. Originally devised, in the words of screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt, as a “grown-up film about compromises, piercing break-ups, decisions both impossible and necessary,” the final product went far beyond this basic conception to become a statement on alienation that covers, it seems, virtually all the bases of contemporary life.
Through the x-ray eyes of Schlesinger and ace camerman Billy Williams—both of whom seem to be able to penetrate every nook and cranny of the mind and its projections—Sunday, Bloody Sunday transcends the “relationship” genre. It blossoms into a commentary on distance, barriers, isolation and communication going awry in a technological world which, ironically enough, prides itself on its advanced communications capabilities. Contrary to what many viewers may think, the film’s main character is not really Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), the sensitive, cultured homosexual physician; or the disorganized, searching Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), employment counselor by day, bohemian by night; or Bob Elkin (Murray Head), their narcissistic, will o’ the wisp mutual lover. The primary character in Sunday, Bloody Sunday is really the telephone, which reigns supreme as the coldblooded master of everyone’s moods and destinies, systematically shattering people’s illusions of connectedness.
From the moment Sunday, Bloody Sunday opens, the telephone’s primacy is established. Sitting at his office desk, Daniel is shot in the background, nearly dwarfed by the phone in the foreground. As he’s talking with a patient, the phone rings. He takes the call—it’s his lover, Bob—and is immediately put into the placating position he will assume throughout the film. “I’m with a patient. Can I ring you back? Try and stay in for just a few minutes, will you? Just stay there for a few minutes, can’t you?”
But Bob can’t stay there, or anywhere else in Daniel’s life, for more than a few minutes. By the time Daniel calls him back, Bob’s line is busy—and then he’s gone. In mounting agitation Daniel calls in for his messages, only to be greeted by the blissfully unsympathetic voice of a matronly answering service lady (Bessie Love) who gets Bob’s name wrong. Daniel reprimands her; later, as the power behind the phone/throne, she takes revenge on him by letting his calls go unanswered as she does a sinister bit of knitting.
And the telephone has plenty of dialogue. Throughout the film, its noises become familiar sound effects, linking one scene and one character to the next. As Daniel makes yet another futile attempt to phone Bob, the dreary dialing of the old rotary phone becomes a metaphor for the vicious circle in which he’s found himself. As he holds the receiver, the incessant blare of the unanswered rings continues into the next scene, where we first see Alex, on the phone, also trying vainly to reach Bob.
One of the wonderful things about Sunday, Bloody Sunday is the inventive way it observes the complexities of the human psyche. Traveling into disjointed flashback, into tortured fantasy, the languid, moody camera vividly mimics the way the mind works. Memories, dreams and fears dominate the thoughts of Daniel and Alex, looming large and disintegrating as the nostalgic past and intangible future explode against the brick wall of the present. And, as the telephone is accorded full character status, its inner workings are also open to dissection. The camera accentuates Daniel’s and Alex’s frustration with their victim status as it pans across the brilliantly colored tangle of wires and flashing lights of the answering service, or the wires and circuitry of the phone itself.
Sunday, Bloody Sunday‘s chief triumph, I think, lies in its perfect blend of substance and style. It is both a visual and a structural tour de force, and although Schlesinger has plenty of fun with the medium of film, he never allows cinematic pretension to overwhelm the poignance of the small, resigned moments that make up most of life. In one of the movie’s most telling bits of dialogue, when Daniel attemps to reassure the parents of a girl who might be paralyzed for life, he remarks, “People can manage on very little.” He is, of course, talking about himself—and about most of us.
People can “manage” on very little—but is this what it’s all about? As Sunday, Bloody Sunday winds down to its lonely conclusion, we are left to grapple with the question of whether or not survival is the same thing as living. And although, in the logic of our world, we know it is not, the heart has reasons, as Pascal remarked, that reason knows not of. And so, Daniel speaks of all of us when he says, just before things fade to black, “Now I want his company and people say, what’s half a loaf, you’re well shot of him. And I say, I know that, I miss him, that’s all . . . Something. We were something. You’ve no right to call me to account.”