The slight stir caused by Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s sexual frankness both during its production, when Penelope Gilliatt’s script was making the industry rounds, and upon its release in 1971 was likely a response to the material’s unprecedented casualness. Though it depicts an eventful week in the lives of two semi-swinging Londoners—Daniel, a gay doctor (Peter Finch), and Alex, a divorced civil servant’s scion (Glenda Jackson)—who begrudgingly share the affections of an aimless bohemian named Bob (Murray Head), the film is almost naïvely non-polemical. No one needs to fight for the right to screw who they want, when they want, and with whatever paucity of adjoining obligations. It simply happens, with very little effort. Even the sex act itself is continually viewed as a compromise between two passive bodies; here director John Schlesinger foregoes the carnal thrusting that forced an X rating upon his previous film, Midnight Cowboy, instead showing blemished layers of flesh curled delicately and forgivingly up to one another. This calmness is never titillating, and thus never exploitative. But we soon learn that the characters are treating themselves and each other with such quiet unfairness that to exploit them visually would be crude and redundant.
It’s the classic trope of “more partners, more problems”: Daniel, always on call for his nagging, malady-suffering clients, stifles his jealousy when Bob runs off with Alex for a weekend; Alex pretends not to care when Bob, tiring of her and a babysitting gig to which they jointly commit, drives back into downtown London for a quickie with Daniel. All three seem to view an enduring partnership as a romantic ideal, yet for the times in which they live the pathway of least resistance is easy-going promiscuity with empty promises. (This is a trend in which the impulse to withdraw from conflict can make itself quite at home.) The admittedly thin story might sound by now like a moralistic see-saw with the tongue-clucking intention of illustrating how a ménage à trois isn’t quite the balanced utopia it’s cracked up to be. But Schlesinger bleeds us through these pockets of plot and self-denial, deftly alternating between testy conversational scenes and immersive, expressionistic montage.
Cross-fades draw us into the tortured minds of both Daniel and Alex, each of whom is hopelessly beholden to class obligations. The former is a privileged Semite who, weirdly, takes pride in the repressive pomp of Judaist ritual; when the character breaks the forth wall at the film’s end to explain himself, he leaks a lot of self-unaware gas. Alex, on the other hand, just barely survived WWII as a child for fear that her father would be blitzed into oblivion; she’s guilty over her failed marriage because she feels she’s annihilated the man who was to be her adult provider. Bob doesn’t receive much of a backstory, because we’re only privy to the shadowed reflections of his form that flit across his lovers’ minds. But fittingly, we learn that he designs pretty if shallow mechanical chotchkies with which he hopes unconfidently to enter the trans-Atlantic consumer market. And so it’s less his lanky body or mildly goofy personality that Daniel and Alex admire so much as his putative rootlessness, and the peace he’s made with the surfeit of modern kitsch that threatens to drown Londoners in uselessness.
Is, then, the film’s dolorousness any “fairer” to polyamory or bisexuality than dusty documentaries decrying the latter as illness and the former as immorally indulgent? Perhaps Schlesinger is suggesting instead that there’s no fairness in relationships between any numbers of people. The three-way love story is, aside from indicative of the film’s zeitgeist, symbolic of the manner in which humans can easily turn sex into a silly search for perfection. Every scene and every awkward camera movement appears to be a vague hunt: Just as Daniel presses on the flabby stomach of a patient, Alex desperately kneads the flesh of Bob’s slim shoulders; the camera pans across a grassy field of rugby players, or a kinetic sculpture in Daniel’s garden that sends spectacularly colored water through several glass bulbs. In one mildly comical sequence, Daniel and Alex pass one another in their cars, unaware that they’ve both got their eyes hazardously turned toward Bob’s apartment building above and their minds equally fixed on his unknown whereabouts.
Everything here is a surface being indexed and groped at, seemingly in the hopes of stumbling across an entryway to some essence—as though penetrating were the same as claiming ownership, and maybe being owned in return. This is the popular fallacy to which the main characters fall prey, though the film’s close makes clear how differently each deludes himself. Much like a woman seen in the background of an early scene who confuses an apartment building for a hat shop, they are too pitifully unaware of the fruitlessness of their search to give it up.
The film often comically beatifies Bob's kitschy gadgets with slow pans and Mozart opera, but the staggering clarity of Criterion's high-def transfer nearly sells us on the phony bliss. Billy Williams's formidable contributions to the film's tone with carefully managed color and light schemes are especially evident in each wordless montage: Bright objects, garments, and bulbs pierce through the autumnal grays and browns of their surroundings with lively reds, metallic blues, and glowing greens. Shots taken from inside homes that face open doors are particularly vibrant; perfectly focused and lovingly luminous exteriors seem just outside the reach of the flatly decorated English rooms and their residents. The film grain has also been duplicated quite splendidly, and lends a texture to the movie not unlike a half-a-day's beard stubble after a close shave. The well-balanced mono soundtrack doesn't disappoint either; the opera singing never throws the average volume off balance.
All the extras are interviews with the film's key players; most of this testimony, like that of Billy Williams and Murray Head, simply underscores the extent to which John Schlesinger consciously strove to make Sunday Bloody Sunday as un-flamboyant as possible. There's also an interview with Schlesinger's longtime partner, Michael Childers, who worked on the film's kinetic designs and promotional material. But an audio recording of Schlesinger's own thoughts on the movie is the disc's supplementary highlight. He describes the differences he perceives between theater, film, and photography with far more articulateness and precision than many critics who study these intersecting arts. Images of Schlesinger's annotated shooting script of the movie that illustrate the recording provide further insight into how he cut and pasted speech and image endlessly until achieving what he wanted. Rounding out the set, the booklet features two highly personal takes on the film, one from screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt, and one from film historian and Schlesinger relative Ian Buruma.
In Sunday Bloody Sunday, bisexual romance is a wild goose chase with occasional boners.