Pros: A sensitive, touching story with great performances by the two leads
Cons: Difficult to read subtitles; black-and-white
When I first saw Sundays and Cybèle in 1962, I was a naïve eighteen years of age. At the time, I was madly (though innocently) in love with a thirteen year-old girl who lived in my neighborhood and, at that age, a five year difference in age seemed . . .well, enormous. When I then saw this charming French film about an amnesic, man-child fighter pilot who forms an innocent child-like attachment with a precocious young girl I thought it was a film about me, or at least about my hopes. The experience of seeing the film consequently left a deep impression on me that remains to this day.
Pierre, the French fighter pilot, played by Hardy Kruger, had been traumatized and rendered amnesic by an event he experienced while flying in Vietnam (when the French were the occupiers before Americas turn). He had witnessed from his cockpit a young Vietnamese girl being killed by an errant bomb dropped from his plane. Now back in Paris, he lives with one of the nurses, Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), who had cared for him during his hospitalization after the trauma. She loves him deeply but the disorientation produced from Pierre's trauma prevents him from genuine reciprocation.
Pierre must fend for himself when his girlfriend is at work at the hospital, on Sundays usually, and spends time aimlessly hanging around such locations as a pet store and the train station, seemingly searching for some kind of connection to his past and his identity. On one such occasion, he spots a man with his daughter somewhere around 11 years of age (the girl being played by an incredibly endearing Patricia Gozzi, born April 12th, 1950). The father and daughter are clearly in the midst of some kind of altercation, piquing Pierres interest. It turns out that the father is about to abandon the daughter by placing her in an orphanage. Pierre watches the abandonment unfold, the daughter apparently recognizing that she will never see her father again despite the father professing that he will come to see her every Sunday. Pierre apparently senses a commonality in their respective separations hers from her last remaining family member and his from his past and identity. He resolves to step in and assume responsibility for the fathers promise.
Pierre goes to the orphanage the next Sunday pretending to be the girls father. After some confusion, the girl, who the nuns have named Francoise (though her actual name is Cybèle), decides to play along with the ruse so as to have some diversion from the drudgery of life at the orphanage. Thus begins a series of Sunday outings for Pierre and Francoise. Francoise tells Pierre that Francoise is not her real name, but refuses to tell him what her real name is until some time in the future when the pain of being abandoned by her father has been assuaged and when Pierre has earned the right to know her name.
The relationship between Pierre and Francoise grows deeper and involves an odd mixture of child/child, adult/child, and adult/adult elements. Francoise (Cybèle), though a young child, is terribly precocious and talks of her love for Pierre and her intention to marry him as soon as she turns 18. Pierre, though a grown man, is child-like in his innocence and is attracted by Francoises irrepressible nature. There is nothing inappropriate in the relationship in actuality, though it is certainly atypical and easily misconstrued. When they are observed during their outings by members of the community, the relationship seems to have an unnaturally romantic element to it.
Bit by bit, the innocence of their love is overtaken by gossip and suspicion. Pierres girlfriend resists doubting the innocence of Pierres intentions, but even she finally succumbs to fears about the unnaturalness of the relationship between Pierre and Cybèle. Doubts grow into fear and fear into paranoia until the relationship is ultimately brought to a tragic end as Pierre is shot to death by the police. The film ends with tears streaming down Cybèles face as she states to the inquiring would-be rescuers that she no longer has a name. We understand that she has lost all innocence and all hope of love.
Sundays and Cybèle was based on a French novel which also later served as the basis for a musical called Cybèle: A Love Story. Serge Bourguignon directed the filming of Sundays and Cybèle, which won the Oscar Award for best foreign film in 1962. It was shot in black and white, which is fitting, since the central theme of the story is the inability of human society to understand relationships between adults and children in other than black or white terms. Living as we do in a world understandably traumatized by instances of pedophilia, it is easier in our culture to understand the story of Lolita than that of Sundays and Cybèle. In the end, the film is about intolerance and its capacity to destroy even the most spiritual and pure relationships when such relationships dont adhere to convention.
Sundays and Cybèle, though rarely seen these days, remains a great art film. The version for English-speaking audiences uses subtitles which, unfortunately, are sometimes rather difficult to read. The theme of the movie is one that some viewers will find either incomprehensible or intolerable, which is, in a sense, exactly the point that the film is making.