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Criterion Collection: Sundays and Cybèle | Blu-ray Review

Serge Bourguignon Sundays and CybèleWinner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963, Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle has finally been issued in an official North American digital video edition by Criterion. For decades Sundays and Cybèle was only available to NTSC markets through imported discs of dodgy provenance and a few murky, widely scattered VHS copies. While half a century is certainly a significant delay, the high quality of the film and this superb pressing will make most cinephiles agree it was worth the wait.

Sundays and Cybèle is the story of Pierre (Hardy Krüger), a 30-ish former fighter pilot who now aimlessly wanders the quiet streets of Ville-d’Avray on the outskirts of Paris. Pierre suffers from a severe case of what would now be called PTSD, squarely blaming himself for a tragic accident that occurred during the heat of battle in Vietnam. Reeling from amnesia and nightmarish visions, Pierre finds a bit of solace one night when he encounters another lost soul, a young girl named Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi) abandoned to an orphanage by her runaway father. The pair begin an innocent liaison every Sunday afternoon, with long walks in a nearby park and visits to local shops. These strolls may be therapeutic for the damaged Pierre, but to the prying eyes of the citizenry this unlikely friendship raises unsavory questions, which morph into deadly serious accusations.

Sundays and Cybèle exists within a delicate realm of visual poetry, with cinematographer Henri Decaë’s exquisite b/w imagery carrying the film through a gauntlet of moods and emotions. His icy, stark exteriors strike a unique parallel with Pierre’s erratic mental state, while the pair’s relaxing promenades are augmented with soft mists and watery reflections. Viewed within the context of Decaë’s long career, Sundays and Cybèle is another bright spot in an impressive filmography that includes numerous French classics along with a smattering of Hollywood hits.

While the film is often lumped in with the era’s nouvelle vague movement, Sundays and Cybèle contains elements of melodrama that disqualify it as ideologically pure. It is first and foremost an actor’s movie, and the performances here lift it miles above typical amnesic war veteran fare. The beautiful Nicole Courcel, who plays Pierre’s long suffering fiancé Madeleine, effortlessly navigates the script’s choppy soap-opera waters and provides a solid foundation for the film’s relatively weak first act. Krüger, generally associated with westerns and war movies, strikes a fine minimalist balance, and delivers a believable opaqueness as a man trapped in a swirling mental confusion.

But it’s Patricia Gozzi’s turn as Cybèle that truly elevates the film beyond genre and turns it into a thing of wonder. Eleven years old at the time of production, to describe Gozzi’s bubbly, yet damaged depth simply as precocious does not do her justice. Her interpretation strikes nary a false color or beat – despite an emotional minefield for a script – and she proceeds with the stunning assurance of a seasoned professional. Surprisingly, Gozzi would take very few roles in the future, so we will never know if this young autodidact had the stuff to blossom as an adult actress. Suffice to say if this one unforgettable character were to stand as her legacy, Patricia Gozzi can still hold her head high.

Disc Review

Criterion’s restoration was sourced from the original camera negative and the results are nothing short of sublime. The exteriors scenes were largely filmed under the heavy gray skies of French winter, and the 2.35:1 transfer captures the crispness and chilly tonalities to perfection. Grain is nicely minimized while preserving exceptional sharpness and clarity. The mono audio track is well balanced, with composer Maurice Jarre’s haunting, pensive woodwinds adding emotional support with the right degree of dynamism. Equally important, the track is spartan and quiet in all the right places, enhancing the film’s contemplative passages.

New interviews with director Serge Bourguignon and actors Hardy Krüger and Patricia Gozzi
These interviews find the surviving principles sharp, clear-eyed and hale. Bourguignon discusses his early success, and his brief tenure as the flavor of the month in a film world obsessed with young directors. Bourguignon also describes the process of casting Sundays and Cybèle, and his original plan to give the role of Pierre to Steve McQueen. He gets a bit contentious when asked about his difficult relationship with the Cahiers du cinema crowd, and he clearly blames them for sabotaging his career. 27 minutes.

Kruger’s segment is full of humorous and charming stories, and the veteran actor relates a number of anecdotes about his long experience in the film business. However it’s clear that Sundays and Cybèle still retains a special place in his heart, and the unique challenges of the character instill him with pride. Kruger was also instrumental in obtaining financing for the film when producer Roman Pine’s sources backed out just prior to shooting. 23 minutes.

Patricia Gozzi, now age 64, still retains the sparkling, emotive eyes of young Cybèle and the character’s sharp perceptions as well. Here she recounts the few bit parts she played prior to Sundays and Cybèle, including a brief appearance in Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961). Gozzi describes the innocent crush she had on actor Hardy Krüger and memory techniques she used to summon the strong emotions called for in the script. 11 minutes.

Le sourire (1960), Bourguignon’s Palme d’Or–winning short documentary, with a new introduction by the director
Filmed in Burma, “The Smile” is all about the daily lives of a young Buddhist monk and U Narada, his aging and wise master. The film features many fascinating glimpses into Burmese culture, and explores the natural world with a palpable sense of child-like wonder. Le sourire creates a pervasive mood of peace and spiritual harmony, and even today provides a thoughtful and loving antidote to the petty concerns of materialistic culture. This delightful supplement is highly recommended, and is suitable for viewers of all ages. 23 minutes.

PLUS: An essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau
Vincendeau’s well written essay, which debates the film’s pedophilia aspects, is part of a 12 page foldout pamphlet. Also included are production credits and notes on the transfer.

Final Thoughts

Sundays and Cybèle deftly overcomes its manipulative – and potentially queasy – B movie origins to deliver an experience that’s intellectually and emotionally immersive. It is a triumph of style and execution, and Criterion’s beautiful new edition preserves all of the film’s glorious and subtle details. In a way, Sundays and Cybèle was a new kind of monster movie, in which a repulsive creature was created whole cloth out of the frenzied imaginations of supposedly upright citizens. When these outraged defenders of morality lift up their weapons – be they torches, pitchforks or warplanes – the innocent lives lost in the carnage can never be fully restored.

Film: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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