Sundays and Cybele – I Have Dreamed Films

There are two films I think about often. Almost on a daily basis. And almost not with my conscious mind, but somewhere in the back of my mind. When I’m thinking about other things or about nothing, memories of the films, or a sensation of the films will creep in. The two films are Diary of a Country Priest and Sundays and Cybèle. Why is this? I do not know! The films are similar in many ways–both gorgeously shot in black-and-white, both slow and strange and dreamlike. Both films focus on damaged men who have a rare, almost confusing, purity. Both men face criticism from without, from society, and both are ultimately destroyed by their inability to make sense of themselves and their place in the world. Both men have a confusing relation to their memories, and a mystifyingly blurred line between reality and imagination or dreams. I think, somehow, these are films that I dream of making. One that I wish I could make, one that I tried to make and have (so far) failed to do.

It’s a fascinating delight to watch interviews with the director and the stars of Sundays and Cybèle. These interviews aren’t the usual Hollywood miasma of self-congratulatory celebrities recounting hijinks with forced jollity. These are people remembering a film they worked on fifty-two years ago, reflecting on their lives at that time and on what they had become. The director and the stars describe the filmmaking process as a wonderfully serendipitous time. Everything happened exactly as it should, everyone was happy, every moment was perfectly captured just as it should be. And the film is ridiculously beautiful, gorgeously filmed, so perfectly acted it doesn’t feel like acting, with a wonderful score, and a strangely dizzyingly clear feeling of looking at the world through patterns in glass or water.

The distribution of Sundays and Cybèle is an odd story. Serge Bourguignon made Sundays and Cybèle in 1962. It was his first feature and he was thirty-three years old. It didn’t do very well in France, it didn’t get distribution, but it got rave reviews at the Venice film festival, a New York Times reporter called it a masterpiece, and it won the oscar for best foreign language film. Needless to say, all this attention and affection from critics and Americans meant that the film got distribution in France, and also that it earned scorn from the other French filmmakers of the New Wave. Their films were fast, unplanned, edgy. Sundays and Cybèle is slow and dreamlike, and it’s finely made. I’ve always admired the collaborative nature of the French New Wave, how they made films together and talked about films together and wrote about films together. It’s always seemed like it would be fun to live in such a time, to have friends like that and make films with them. Bourguignon describes the new wavers as a club of cool kids, which he wasn’t part of, and I’d never really thought of it in that light.

Modern critics talk about how differently the film might be received now than it was then, because we’re all so jaded and cynical now and people grow up so fast. But to hear the discussions of the film from the time, people were always jaded and cynical and even in 1962 they watched the film with doubt and suspicion. The film tells the story of a thirty-year-old soldier, Pierre, scarred by his experiences in the French Indo-China war, who has trouble remembering, trouble fitting in. He meets a twelve-year-old girl, Cybèle, abandoned by her parents, who develops a strong attachment to him. They love each other, they’re good friends, and that is all. But there is a discomfort in watching the film. A sense that anything could go wrong at any moment, because it often does in film. Because it often does in life. It makes us question our suppositions, our doubts, our lack of faith in humanity.

In Diary of a Country Priest, the priest has a “…childlike frankness that extends to all of his actions. And like a child, it seems as though everything that people tell him comes from a different world, all the advice he’s given seems a little doubtful or strange, as it must seem to a child when somebody tells them to do something they don’t understand. He seems frustratingly weak, sometimes, but like a child, he has a strong voice inside that tells him who he is and what he needs. And, like a child, he makes questionable decisions sometimes about his well-being.” This could describe Pierre as well, and it’s this innocence that makes the relationship with Cybèle seem perfect and fitting. They’re children together, and she helps him as much as he helps her. Complicated, of course, but beautiful, like most human relationships.

Bourguignon talks about his career after Sundays and Cybèle, which went really nowhere. He made a couple of films in Hollywood, but they were strange, and not well-received. He doesn’t sound bitter. And he says, I have written films since, I have dreamed films, and maybe someday another little miracle will happen, and I will make another film. Well! I have dreamed films! I have written films! And the film I have written, which I used to believe I will make someday, but now I’m fairly sure I never will, has almost exactly the same plot as Sundays and Cybèle, though I had never heard of or seen a minute of Bourguignon’s film. It’s the strangest thing, I tell you, the strangest thing, to sit here feeling old and discouraged and watch Bourguignon, who by any account has had remarkable success in his life, sounding old and discouraged. And then sounding so hopeful! It’s discombobulating.

I don’t think I will make the film, but I might. In the meantime I will dream films. In my dreams (which are after all so closely connected to films) I do make movies. I make beautiful movies, and I have all the footage (beautiful footage) shot, just waiting for me to edit it together. I will have that dream of a perfect film, a glowing, gorgeous, underwater-cut-glass-beautiful-film. And maybe that is enough.

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