“Sundays and Cybele” - Serge Bourguignon (1962)

Although the ultimate nature of love is unfathomable (at least within the terms used by our modernist perspective), it does seem somehow connected to the quintessential mystery of human existence – who are we?  How can we solve this mystery?  Logic and modernist philosophy fail us here [1], so we must turn to the arts to explore this crucial area of love and being.  And within the compass of the artistic realm, the most narratively expressive art form available to undertake this exploration is the cinema.  And so far, to me, the greatest ever cinematic expression of love’s mysterious character has been the French film Sundays and Cybele (Les Dimanches de Ville d'Avray, 1962).  This is not just a magical film; it is a magnificent monument to human expression.  The film won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963 [2], but its greatness extends far beyond that specific category.

The film’s story is about a traumatized young war veteran who befriends an 11-year-old orphan girl, and it recounts their ensuing relationship.  It is based on the novel Les Dimanches de Ville d'Avray by Bernard Eschassériaux (1959), but 33-year-old director Serge Bourguignon, for whom this was his first feature, introduced some crucial alterations that I think greatly enhanced the story told.  In fact the film’s script by Bourguignon and Antoine Tudal received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay [3].

Bourguignon had already gained international attention with his documentary about a Buddhist monk, Le Sourire (The Smile), which had won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.  Here on the occasion of making Sundays and Cybele, Bourguignon was greatly assisted by the contributions of gifted cinematographer Henri Decaë (Les Enfants Terribles, 1950; The 400 Blows, 1959; Les Cousins, 1959; Le Samouraï, 1967; and Le Cercle Rouge 1970) and famed musical composer Maurice Jarre.  In fact, although Jarre won US Oscars for his film scores for both Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), I feel that his moody musical score here for Sundays and Cybele (which was also nominated for an Oscar [3]) was his best work.

In addition to the excellent technical contributions behind the camera, the film benefited from outstanding performances in front of the camera, particularly on the part of the three principal players: Hardy Krüger, Patricia Gozzi, and Nicole Courcel.  Nevertheless and despite the enthusiasm with which the film was received overseas, the response to the film in France was more muted.  This was apparently partly because Bourguignon, although youthful and loosely classified as part of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), was considered to be an outsider by the critical clique at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema, which comprised a number of new and aspirant filmmakers in competition with Bourguignon [4,5].

The main theme of the film concerns love and how it defines us.  Of course the world ‘love’ has many interpretations and comes in many guises connected with varying contexts.  This can include motherly and filial love, sexual love, brotherly love, and agape (the love God has for humankind).  But Sundays and Cybele concerns the very essence of the feeling of true love – that soul-immersing encounter when one feels a dissolution of any separation from one’s beloved.  Lustful physical pleasure is not intrinsically part of this.  The film places this experience in a poetic context that enables the viewer to see it, and feel it, from multiple perspectives.

In this respect there are two main world-view perspectives evoked in the film:
  • Ego-Analytical
    This is the rational and logical world-view that is comprised by our modernist culture.  Of course, there are many variants to this, but they mostly advocate objective and evidence-based rational decision-making.  The rational observer sets him- or herself apart from what is observed and seeks to make sense of the world from an outside perspective.
  • Natural-Organic.
    This is a more primitive and primordial perspectival way that sees oneself as intrinsically embedded in nature.  One must, as Martin Heidegger counseled, use hermeneutics to find “pathways through the woods” of our experiential worlds.  But we, and others, are essential and inextricable parts of this natural world.  It is a world of narratives that truly constitutes our existence.
The story of Sundays and Cybele passes through the four narrative phases as its tale is told.

1.  Pierre Meets Françoise. 
In the opening scene, which is presumably a psychological flashback, Pierre (played by Hardy Krüger) is piloting a warplane over Viet Nam in the French Indochina War.  As he strafes a local village, he sees a young local girl in his gunsight just before his plane crashes to the ground.  We will later learn through narrative technique of slow disclosure that Pierre was found half-dead by rescuers and taken to a hospital, where he kept babbling, “Did I kill her?”. 

The scene now shifts to a suburb of Paris, Ville-d’Avray, where Pierre lives with the nurse he had met in the hospital and who is now his girlfriend. Although Pierre has physically recovered from his injuries, he suffers from amnesia – presumably brought about by the anguish he felt in likely killing the young village girl.  He now doesn’t know his past or even who he is.  In Eschassériaux’s original novel, the Pierre character was a hardened gangster and not a traumatized war veteran.  I think Bourguignon’s shifted picture of Pierre is crucial to our empathizing with Pierre’s character and is a profound enhancement to the story.

One wintry evening while idling at the local train station, Pierre is disturbed to see a young girl  (Patricia Gozzi) crying while quarreling with her father.  Pierre tries to cheer her up and is charmed by the girl’s infectious smile.  Fascinated, Pierre follows the father and girl to a Roman Catholic convent, where the father dumps her in the convent’s orphanage.  Then the father runs away and disappears from the story.

Then Pierre is shown with his loving and supportive girlfriend, the nurse Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), discussing his amnesia.  Pierre also spends therapeutic time helping out a local artistic sculptor Carlos (Daniel Ivernel).  Carlos reminds Pierre that it is good for him to spend time around trees.  Pierre acknowledges that the trees are good, but that when he looks up at trees,  he experiences vertigo, a vestige of his traumatic experience in the war.  Carlos reassures him that “the day you stop getting vertigo you will be cured.”

Since Madeleine is currently assigned hospital work on Sundays, Pierre goes the next Sunday, without telling Madeleine, to look in on the young girl at the orphanage.  There he is mistakenly assumed to be the girl’s father and permitted to take her outside.  He takes her back to Madeleine’s apartment, where the girl relates to him how both of her parents have now abandoned her.  The girl is known as Francoise at the convent, but that is not her real name, which she keeps a secret.  But she impishly promises to reveal to him her true name if he would get the metal cock atop the nearby gothic cathedral steeple and give it to her.  Francoise wants Pierre to adopt her, but he tells her that would be impossible.  So she settles for his promise to come visit her every Sunday.

At this point with most of the principal characters introduced, it is appropriate to consider how they fit into the film’s thematic content with respect to the two main world-view perspectives mentioned earlier.  Let me assure you that the film is not so schematic as the following characterizations might suggest, and I offer them here only to support a deeper understanding of what transpires.
  • Francoise
    Her real name, which is only revealed towards the end of the story, is Cybele, and this is symbolically important for the story.  The name Cybele refers to an ancient (and hence pre-Christian) Greek and Anatolian mother goddess.  She is the goddess of mountains, trees, earth, and fertile nature and hence symbolizes the Organic-Nature perspective mentioned above [6].  Our Francoise/Cybele in this story embodies in her own innocent way that perspective, too.
  • Pierre 
    With his amnesia wiping out his Ego-Analytical memories of his past and who he was, he is now like an innocent child starting out all over in life.  He is ready to be captivated by Francois/Cybele’s Organic-Nature engagement with the world around her.
  • Carlos 
    His artistic engagement with the natural world enables him to see things from the Organic-Nature perspective.  He counsels others to let Pierre find his own pathway through the natural woods.
  • Madeleine 
    With her medical profession background, she is used to seeing things from the Ego-Analytical perspective.  But her sincere, loving nature places her on the fence and open to the possibilities of the Organic-Nature perspective when she discusses things with Carlos.
  • Bernard (Andre Oumansky)
    He is introduced later and shown to be a doctor in the hospital and with amorous intentions towards Madeleine.  He is emphatically categorical and the supreme representative of the Ego-Analytical mode.
  • Carmela (Bibiane Stern)
    She is Carlos’s briefly-seen wife and is also strictly Ego-Analytical.
2.  Meetings on Sundays  
In this section the relationship between Pierre and Francoise develops when he starts regularly taking the girl out on Sundays.  He takes her out on to the town lake where they sometimes visit an abandoned gazebo and explore their fantasies.  The two innocent souls are gradually enthralled with each other, but there is no trace of sexual attraction.  They are in their own world of imagination.  In fact Francoise frequently entreats Pierre to toss a stone into the still waters in front of them, which creates circular ripples that distort their reflected image.  When they gaze at their reflection enframed by the circular ripples, Francoise tells him, “now we are home”. 

But there are also sometimes little pouts that arise from Pierre’s occasional feelings of jealousy.  On one occasion Francoise admires a handsome rider on horseback, which disturbs Pierre.  On another occasion Francoise is playing with some children her own age and one of the boys roughhouses her a little.  This causes Pierre to smack the boy harshly, causing Francoise to look on in horror. 

But she overcomes her misgivings and takes comfort in the fact that he loves her.  And she swears that she loves him, too.  She tells him that she is almost twelve, and when she reaches the age of eighteen, she will marry him.  After they make up, she asks him to carry her through the woods, while she sings a love song to him.  She also tells him about her romantic dream of spending Christmas with him.  Despite all these romantic gestures, their love is completely innocent, without any elements of sensuality.

All the scenes showing Pierre and Francoise together in the woods are beautifully filmed, with  Decaë’s camera compositions often including distant shots of the two of them embedded in the natural sylvan environment.  Indeed it was apparently Bourguignon’s and Decaë’s intention here to evoke the black-and-white imagery of old Japanese woodblock prints with their cinematography [7].  This is a further visual conjuring of the Organic-Nature perspective, and it is enhanced by Jarre’s haunting background music that adds an interiority to what is shown.

3.  Madeleine’s Concerns       
Unbeknownst to Pierre, Madeleine arranges to take the next Sunday off so that the two of them can attend a luncheon together at the lakeside café with some other couples, including Dr. Bernard. Pierre learns about this at the last minute and is disturbed, because it is too late for him to inform Francoise that he can’t meet her.  At the luncheon, Pierre is distracted and can think only about Francoise.  At one point he looks out of the café window across the lake and mistakenly thinks he sees Francoise with the handsome horseback rider (it turns out to be another woman with a cap similar to Francoise’s).  All the while, Madeleine is lovingly attentive and tries to mollify her frowning boyfriend.

Afterwards they all stop at an amusement park where Pierre visits a gypsy fortune teller.  While the woman is not looking, he steals an African sorcerer’s dagger the likes of which Francoise had once described to him.

Then the group get into amusement park bumper cars, and each couple gets into a separate car. But the ensuing jousting chaos only elicits another vertigo attack for Pierre.  To make things worse, he spots Francoise among the onlookers watching the bumper cars just as Madeleine leans over and kisses him.  In a panic, Pierre smacks Madeleine and jumps out of the car.  This generates a chaotic brawl, and the luncheon party friends just manage to escape to their car and get away.

All this spawns Madeleine’s doubts about Pierre.  She finally realizes that Pierre has been secretly spending his Sundays with Francoise, and she discusses her concerns with Carlos.  Carlos assures her that Pierre is just innocently finding his inner self with Francoise.  But Carlos’s wife Carmela hatefully says that Pierre is a pedophile.  So Madeleine decides to investigate things herself, but following Carlos’s urgings, she doesn’t confront Pierre directly about Francoise.  She truly loves Pierre and wants somehow to win his confidence.

The next Sunday Madeleine skips going to the hospital so that she can secretly follow Pierre with Francoise.  She watches the two of them playing together by the lakeside. When from a distance she first sees Pierre holding the sorcerer’s dagger, she is alarmed, but she soon sees that it is just a game for them.  In accordance with the African legend, they stick the dagger into a tree trunk in order to listen to the mysteries of the tree spirits.  As she watches them play together further, she becomes convinced of the essential innocence of their relationship.

4.  Christmas Denouement
But can the innocent dreamworld of Pierre and Francoise continue?  Christmas is coming, and Pierre wants to make Francoise’s romantic dreams come true.  He takes Francoise to the lakeside café, where Francoise confidently orders two grenadines (non-alcoholic).  When the waiter frowns, she smoothly switches her order to two hot toddies (alcoholic).  Then Francoise again promises to tell Pierre her real name when he gives her the church steeple cock.

This idea of Francoise’s real name, Cybele, is important.  It represents her innermost self, which she wants to share only with her beloved.  She knows who she really is – Cybele.  And Pierre is discovering who he really is, too. 

The climactic ending is too dramatic to describe here.  Cybele does finally reveal her true name to Pierre.  And Pierre does go to the top of the church steeple, where he dismounts the steeple cock and, despite the vertiginous height, discovers that his vertigo has finally vanished. He is finally cured and has at last found himself. But the forces of Ego-Analytical coercion led by Bernard are working against the two innocent dreamers.   Tragedy is in the making.

Note that when it comes to understanding who we are, it is not a matter of understanding some structure with identified properties and capabilities.  That is the Ego-Analytical way of looking at things.  It is more a matter of understanding ourselves as multiple narratives-in-the-making.  This necessarily entails the Organic-Nature perspective and our responding to the opportunities of immersive engagement with the beloved other.  When we do find ourselves in love, our horizons open up to new and wondrous narrative possibilities, new pathways through the woods, in unified collaboration with our respective beloved ones.

It is the glimpse of this mesmerizing wonder of love that Sundays and Cybele and the transcendent performance of Patricia Gozzi, as Francoise/Cybele, give us.  You must see this film.

  1. For a lucid discussion of modern philosophy’s shortcomings and inability to account for human conscious experience, see
    • Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, (2012).
  2. “35th Academy Awards”, Wikipedia, (27 August 2017).    
  3. “36th Academy Awards”, Wikipedia, (8 August 2017).   
  4. Ginette Vincendeau, “Sundays and Cybèle: Innocent Love?”, The Criterion Collection, (1 October 2014).   
  5. Clayton Dillard, “Sundays and Cybèle”, Slant Magazine, (28 September 2014).   
  6. “Cybele”, Wikipedia, (15 August 2017).   
  7. Interview with Hardy Kruger, “Sundays and Cybele”, The Criterion Collection, (September 2014). 

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