[James Cathcart, DJ, cinephile and now programmer of Third Man Records' new Light and Sound Machine film series, shares finds from the dusky celluloid recesses and online frontiers of cinema.]
Love is a murky concept. Its amorphous, inconsistent forms often defy our conception of what it's supposed to be. Those afflicted by its most complicated variations find it beyond their control or understanding. Those who witness the amorous abstraction of others do so from an even foggier vantage. Seen from the outside, love’s forbidden permutations may provoke unease or disgust in the observer — even an impulse to destroy it.
The practitioners of bizarre love in Miklos Jansco’s Private Vices, Public Virtues, described in my previous column, pay dearly to learn this lesson. And that fertile theme is sounded again by this week’s entry, Sundays and Cybele. The 1962 foreign language Oscar winner, it nonetheless defies the recollection of all but the most devout cineastes: it's presently as obscure as its enigmatic director, Serge Bourguignon.
A veteran of France’s Indochinese War, Pierre (the unmistakable Hardy Kruger) is a fractured semblance of his former self. Anguished by a severe psychological condition that predates our contemporary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, he returns to Ville d’Avray to spend an idle life under the care of beautiful and compassionate Madeleine, whose love for Pierre is met with harsh indifference in his traumatized condition.
Upon his arrival, Pierre sees something that triggers the first significant emotional response of his post-war existence: a young girl abandoned by her father at a nearby Catholic boarding school. She's played by cult favorite Patricia Gozzi, an excruciatingly obscure child actress whose credits are few but unanimously revered — a sort of Linda Manz for the die-hard Francocinephile. Flooded with parallel memories of his wartime agony, wherein the crash landing of his fighter plane results in the death of a Vietnamese girl of similar age, Pierre becomes fixated on the predicament of this neglected child.
Likening her abuse to his own, he begins a kinship with the girl, masquerading as her father so that he may liberate her from the school for secret Sunday liaisons. Though their relationship remains platonic, the nature of his enchantment is never totally revealed. Meanwhile, the feelings of the 12-year-old girl, who disingenuously calls herself Francoise as an acknowledgement of her displaced former self, are quickly evolving into something greater than friendship. As they stroll together through the town’s public spaces, she muses openly about the day when she’ll be old enough to marry Pierre, who is well more than twice her age.
As the residents of the small town catch on that Pierre is not Francoise’s father, rumor and accusation begin to spread, bolstered by their knowledge of Pierre’s disturbed mental condition. Although the people close to Pierre advocate for understanding on his behalf — despite not fully understanding the situation themselves — the scenario ends in the predictably dire apogee of the townspeople’s contempt.
The genius of Bourguignon’s film is the obfuscation of the true emotional nature of Pierre’s connection with Francoise. On one hand, their relationship is undeniably inappropriate. Even without a sexual element, Pierre’s actions verge on predatory. Founded in dishonesty, theirs is a connection that only thrives under the shroud of secrecy.
On the other hand, Francoise’s presence in Pierre’s life is emphatically therapeutic. As their emotional bond, genuine and mutual, becomes too close for the audience’s comfort, so too does Pierre become more human. Like the characters who care most for Pierre, the viewer is constantly challenged by his actions — a conflict of empathy and aversion that forces us to reassess our preconceptions of what constitutes a healthy relationship.
In addition to its Acadamy recognition, the film is also arguably the career pinnacle of the incomparable cinematographer Henri Decaë, who shot no fewer than a dozen bona-fide masterpieces from that era of French cinema. From The 400 Blows to The Thief of Paris, from Le Beau Serge to Le Cercle Rouge, his top-tier pedigree is dazzlingly exemplified here. Yet save for some Parisian revival screenings in recent years, Sundays and Cybele seems to have escaped its deserved acknowledgement among the canon of French filmmaking.
Perhaps its position outside the parameters of both the Nouvelle Vague and the "cinema de papa" of French production rendered it invisible to history. Or maybe it was Bourguignon’s spotty post-Cybele career. He next directed a maligned American-produced Western with Max Von Sydow called The Reward, followed by an admirable but poorly received attempt to cast Brigitte Bardot in a humorless departure from her sex-kitten persona in the romantic drama Two Weeks in September.
His fourth and final film — and it’s a stretch to even call it “his” — was The Picasso Summer, a doomed Ray Bradbury adaptation that he walked away from without a directorial credit. It was subsequently mired for years in reshoots and postproduction meddling before getting an empty-hearted release into immediate obscurity. That’s the last anyone would hear of Mr. Bourguignon until his reemergence at those Parisian exhibitions, now a man well into his 80s.
Whatever the reason for its neglect, Sundays and Cybele is a work of indisputable brilliance and long overdue for reappraisal. Its expressive Cinemascope photography and pointed investigation of social doctrine currently available only to the European home video market, it is a guaranteed cause célèbre to the French cinema connoisseur who can find it.