Although initially met with disdain by several of the critics turned filmmakers from Cahiers du Cinéma, Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle is nonetheless a humanist masterpiece that anchors its narrative of post-war despair to a predominately post-neorealism aesthetic with tinges of magical realism. The film’s rejection by the Cahiers lot likely stemmed from a two-fold issue: They found the film less formally daring, innovative, and rigorous than the work being done concurrently by filmmakers like Godard or Chabrol, and they were outraged that Sundays and Cybèle topped both Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie as France’s selection for the foreign-language race at the 35th Academy Awards, which it subsequently won. Yet while Bourguignon’s filmic methods are less experimental and more hinged to narrative continuity, a determination remains in how the film’s central relationship between Pierre (Hardy Krüger), a psychologically fragile war pilot, and Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi), an orphan abandoned by her father, unfolds with a sincerity that recalls the phantasmagoric desires of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and predicts the sexual honesty of Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart.
There’s little denying that Sundays and Cybèle is as equally in dialogue with the cinematic milieu as its French New Wave contemporaries; it’s just engaged with different questions, namely the ways in which cinema can function to visually approximate psycho-sexual repression or trauma, while simultaneously encoding progressive social values that speak to rapidly emerging scientific discoveries concerning childhood sexuality and PTSD. These aims are clear from the film’s brief prologue, which finds Pierre’s military jet nose-diving during an airstrike on a small Vietnamese village. When Pierre realizes he’s dropping a bomb while staring into the eyes of a small Vietnamese girl, Bourguignon reverts to the image’s negative, then freezes on a shot of Pierre’s horrified cognizance of his complicity in the destruction of innocence.
Bourguignon’s visual choice here isn’t simply form mirroring content, but a deeper, more thorough act of aesthetic self-reflection, where the innocence being lost occurs not only within the narrative of the film itself, but is endemic to a kind of modernist filmmaking that dispenses with a separation between film and filmmaker. Thus, Pierre and Cybèle’s interactions are initially constructed as an out for Pierre, whose current girlfriend, Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), affords the proposed pleasures of a bourgeois lifestyle, with dinners and pillow talk. Pierre, however, is thoroughly dissatisfied not necessarily with Madeleine in particular, but the very notion of having to sexually satisfy an adult woman, whose demands are equated with an assimilation into normative culture, dictated by schedules, repetition, and perpetual, sexual stability. However, Bourguignon’s critique remains one of sociological inquiry rather than misogynist screed by affording Madeleine’s psychology equal footing with Pierre’s; her pain and distraught search for warmth and significance in an environment that outwardly provides none is made just as tragic, if not more so than Pierre’s, since her jilted sense of dutifulness and care are often revealed through close-ups, most devastatingly once she learns that her strives for normality have been suddenly snatched away from her near the film’s end.
Cybèle, then, becomes both the problem and solution for Bourguignon’s conceptual ménage à trois, even though her relationship with Pierre is never made explicitly pedophilic. Bourguignon quickly abandons any notion that Cybèle is merely a symbolic stand-in solution for rectifying Pierre’s murderous war acts by allowing her, like Madeleine, the space to break free from being reduced to an object of male desire, by a name game she plays throughout, taking the name Françoise early on, only to reveal her actual name in the film’s final third as a Christmas gift to Pierre. “Si belle,” Pierre says, rendering her name a contingency that translates to English as “if beauty.” Yet Cybèle maintains her autonomy and control until, much like Madeleine, her sense of fairness and dutiful engagement with an exterior world leads her to ultimately claim: “I have no name now!” Although sexualized when caressing her face with a stolen dagger while confessing her love for Pierre or naming a desired objet d’art in the form of a mechanical bird she refers to as a “steeple cock,” Bourguignon consistently traces the three main characters’ desires to unseen, systemic forces which perpetually seek out and snuff out non-normative relationships as a carte blanche, with little regard for having to answer for one’s actions as a consequence.
Yet, Bourguignon retains his own complicity in the film’s complex examination of sexual desire being irrevocably tied to creative and artistic desire by visually insisting that cinema must always serve as a mirror upon the self and cannot be extracted from the tangible, corporeal elements that give cinematic form its shape. Nothing better articulates this than a series of shots throughout which use water, particularly a recurring lake, to function as a natural mirror, often either expanding the landscape via illusory depth or more simply reflecting Pierre and Cybèle as they gaze paradoxically into its depths and at themselves. Their gaze isn’t sublimated to Bourguignon’s own, but coded as a stand-in for it. Thus, by not absolving himself from the proceedings, Bourguignon wisely turns Sundays and Cybèle into a metacinematic ménage à quatre.
Per usual, the Criterion Collection has made great strides to bring an important, previously unreleased to DVD or Blu-ray film to its most luminous audio-visual heights. Aside from some cracks and scratches present during the opening credits, the image has been given meticulous attention in order to remove debris and pops, with all filmic artifacts aside from the retention of grain reduced to a minimum. Likewise, the film’s sound mix has been impressively rendered with no audible dropouts or unintentional contrast between score and dialogue. The Blu-ray also features a new subtitle translation, which is fantastic, aside from an uncharacteristic, although mild, error late in the film, when Madeleine asks a bar owner: "You haven’t see [sic] a man with a Christmas tree?"
While not overflowing, Criterion has provided enough context and additives to make both the film and Serge Bourguignon objects worthy of further contemplation and consideration. In three interviews totaling an hour, Bourguignon, Hardy Krüger, and Patricia Gozzi reflect on how each of them came to be involved with the film, which naturally contain some overlapping elements. Both Bourguignon and Krüger talk about how Steve McQueen was originally Bourguignon’s choice for Pierre and Bourguignon and Gozzi offer their takes on the film’s intimations and dealings with pedophilia. Also included is Bourguignon’s Palme d’Or-winning short documentary Le Sourire, the film’s theatrical trailer, and an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, which touches on the film’s initial reception among critics and feminists, and the film’s continued relevance today.
Sundays and Cybèle is a tragedy worth celebrating on Blu-ray, especially given the new 2K restoration and a handful of informative special features provided by the Criterion Collection.