Monday, February 1, 2016

#728: Sundays and Cybèle

(Serge Bourguignon, 1962)

How you feel about Sundays and Cybele is going to depend largely on how you feel about the central relationship. Is the love expressed between Pierre and Cybele innocent and harmless, or is it exploitative and dangerous? Even if it is innocent, does this whitewashed portrayal of a platonic love affair between a 30-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl represent a disingenuous case for allaying suspicion in real-life cases that may include actual abuse? Bourguignon's adaptation of the novel makes this even more complex - in the book, Pierre's history is a violent criminal past that pops up frequently in the present, while the film gives Pierre a guilty-but-not-guilty memory of an accident where he killed a young girl in the heat of battle. Though his violence comes up here, too, it's portrayed as an after-effect of his trauma, and sadly the moment in which he hits his girlfriend was not the immediate character condemnation it would be today when the film was released in 1962. This leaves the viewer with a less complicated Pierre, one whose sole purpose seems to be to protect Cybele, whereas the book's Cybele seems like more of a metaphor for Pierre's innocence, which he is constantly at risk of destroying. It doesn't seem too different from adapting Lolita and making Humbert a savior who rescues Lolita from an empty and lost existence.

The politics of the film make it difficult to love, but within its own universe, this is a wonderful movie. The cinematography by the legendary Henri Decae is absolutely gorgeous and Criterion's transfer makes it look like it was shot last year. The performances are great, too, especially the young Patricia Gozzi, who delivers her precocious dialogue with maximum believability. The success of the movie rests on this fact, because the more you accept that she is a willing and aware participant in the relationship, the easier it is to take the film as what it wants to be. Pierre's depression and abandonment demands a motherly touch, not a girlfriend's, and Cybele provides this to him. Nowhere in the film does Bourguignon sexualize Cybele - even when Bernard learns of the relationship, he is more concerned with Pierre killing her to alleviate his guilt about the woman he killed than he is with rape or sexual abuse. When Cybele talks of marriage, it is of cooking and cleaning, not the consummation that comes with it, and in fact it is Madeleine who is sexualized, as we meet her in bed and watch her bare back as she dresses. This is not to forgive the film's portrayal of the relationship, but to acknowledge that the movie believes in its innocence and advocates for the purity of its lead characters.

From a plotting perspective, the most deliberate choices here come at the beginning and the end. The way Pierre's accident and fate are presented leave plenty to the viewer's imagination. Each is certainly an unconventional way to deliver the information, and using Madeleine to deliver the crucial final information is decidedly anti-climactic. But there's a certain inevitability to Pierre's death that comes with occurring off-screen, as if he was dead all along or at the very least was destined to die. If we had seen the shootout, the suspense of the film would have easily overwhelmed the tragedy. Perhaps more interestingly, the viewer will never know if the police were actually right to kill Pierre - perhaps Bernard was right after all and this Christmas recreation was merely his final gift to the doomed little girl who had wandered unsuspectingly into his catharsis.

Sundays and Cybele was Bourguignon's first feature, and it's always interesting to watch a successful debut (this movie won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars) from a director that didn't end up amounting to much. There are plenty of flashes of style here, but the care with which Bourguignon treats his characters and his camera's gentle movement are the most noteworthy marks of his skill. Though most filmmakers who make their best movie first end up amassing a reasonable career filmography that can range from terrible to often pretty good, few flame out as gloriously as Bourguignon, whose film directing career didn't make it out of the 60s. It's great to have this in the Collection, then, looking gorgeous and preserved for future film buffs. Although the morals/politics of the film make it a difficult one to recommend to everyone, it's a haunting and complex work that should be seen, and a nice New Wave-parallel entry from a time when France's cinematic potential seemed limitless.

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