A French fighter pilot kills, or at least nearly kills, a young child in the line of duty. Suffering from apparently untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, he strikes up a relationship with an abandoned young girl. Their relationship forms the crux of Sundays and Cybele, a 1962 film directed by Serge Bourguignon, now available from The Criterion Collection. The 30-ish former pilot is Pierre (Hardy Krüger) and he lives with his nurse girlfriend Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), who tries to be understanding about his emotionally damaged state. What she doesn’t know is that he’s been sneaking off every Sunday to be with the 12-year-old he knows as Françoise (Patricia Gozzi).
It’s hard to imagine any reasonable person not recognizing how inappropriate this set-up is, but the interesting aspect of Bourguignon’s storytelling is its non-judgmental approach. The more townsfolk who see the older man strolling leisurely through the park with a young girl who’s obviously not his daughter, the more suspicions arise. But throughout Sundays, Pierre is treated as a figure of childlike innocence. Individual viewer reaction was surely polarized in 1962 and will continue to be for anyone new to the film. The circumstances that bring Pierre and Cybele (the nuns at the children’s home in which she lives dubbed her Françoise) together are a bit contrived. In the span of what seems to be only an hour or so, Pierre accosts Cybele while she’s with her father on the way to the nunnery. He overhears her father promise he’ll be back on Sundays (visitation day), but also manages to determine that he has no true intentions to do so.
Unconvincing plot mechanics aside, the relationship that forms once Pierre begins posing as Cybele/Françoise’s father is so natural it can only be uncomfortable. Pierre, it must be understood, drops any real paternal sensibilities once he’s out of the nun’s sight. The girl regards him as her fiancé, openly expressing her wishes to wed once she reaches 18. She’s jealous of Madeleine, whom she continually mistakenly refers to as Pierre’s wife. Pierre, however “innocent” he may appear to be at times, does nothing to correct this course of thinking. Make no mistake: Bourguignon doesn’t depict any Humbert Humbert-esque indiscretions. While not a physical relationship, it is nonetheless a brazenly romantic one. It all leads to a “big ending” which is a bit too convenient, but the fascinating part is watching Pierre and Cybele go from point A to point B.
Criterion’s presentation of Sundays and Cybele is beautifully effective. According to the booklet, the transfer was created from “a new 35mm fine-grain master made from the original camera negative.” Henri Decaë’s black-and-white cinematography is highly, and rather oddly, stylized during the opening fighter jet prologue. After that, his works offers a relatively natural appearance, albeit one marked by apparently intentional slightly soft focus. The LPCM mono soundtrack has been remastered from a 35mm magnetic track and there’s nothing to complain about. The French dialogue is strong and clear and there’s nothing much to get in the way of it. Maurice Jarre’s score is generally supportive and always well balanced within the simple sound design.
A few supplements are included on Criterion’s Blu-ray, including "Le sourire," a 1960 short documentary by Sundays director Serge Bourguignon. The director provides a new introduction as well. Brand new interviews with director Bourguignon and cast members Hardy Krüger and Patricia Gozzi are also included. The fold-out insert contains an insightful essay by film critic Ginette Vincendeau. Sundays and Cybele is a dreamily gorgeous film to look at and is anchored by two especially well-drawn performances by the “odd couple” lead actors. The subject matter, particularly the challenging nature in which it’s presented, will continue to ignite debates.