Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Sundays and Cybèle (Serge Bourguignon, 1962)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)

Sundays and Cybèle (Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray) is a profoundly elemental film. Water, fire, trees, even glints of light are shown to be of essential significance to the story. They are filmed not as mere background to the human interest of the relationship between a pilot (Hardy Kruger), traumatised by the killing of a child in a colonial war and the young orphaned girl (the 12 year-old Patricia Gozzi) whom he meets as he waits to recollect both memory and the scattered parts of his self, but as central elements of their time together.

Beginning with a clash of cymbals that we later learn is taken from a Tibetan ceremony that signifies the encircling of the universe, we see Pierre, a fighter pilot, through a screen of flashback, in a raid over an Asian village. As he flies, water appears to sparkle in the sun in the fields below him. We then see that these glints of light are reflected from his own cockpit. He flies in close and fires at the village. His bullets pummel the quicksilver land which accepts the seeds of his future harvest. As he flies in closer still, a child’s terrified eyes are imprinted in his mind, he rips away his oxygen mask and floats free into stilled silence.

when I was glass
the land below me was glass
that would shatter at my touch
but at my approach it was water
and then earth I was seeding
and my body was this earth
rent by my fire
and a child took my eyes
and filled me with her fear

The surge of a train recalls Pierre to his surroundings, the railway station of Ville d’Avray. Now a bewildered man-child living with Madeleine, the woman who nursed him, he rises from his bench to regard the passengers that go past, looking for some kind of contact or recognition. A man and a chld arrive in his orbit and he is asked for directions to a convent which he cannot give. He catches eyes with the child and, distressed by her crying, follows them outside, where he attempts to console her by offering a handful of shining stones which he shows her by the light of a match. ‘Take one’, he says, ‘it’s the piece of a star.’ Her father will not allow it. ‘But it was just for fun’, says Pierre. ‘It’s water, only water’, and points of light, the first of those that gleam and sparkle throughout the film, twinkle in his and the girl’s eyes. As they head to the convent through the inky night, the whites of their faces, and the car lights that pass seem like planets in a dark night sky. A little while later, when, through chance and happenstance, Pierre has come to be taken for her father, and he and the girl, Françoise, are shown together, in silhouette in the dark of his room, the light from the landing catches the few reflective surfaces around them, and, for a while, it seems that they have formed their own universe.

They make their home in water, in the ripples of a lake that are set in motion when they dislodge a stone as he spins her around in play. As they look into the water, the trunks  and branches of trees loom large above their reflections, protective but dominant, knowing all already. ‘We’ve entered the circle’, says Françoise, and we see their reflections walk among trees in the water. Pierre’s vertigo, his fear of falling into water, is replaced by a fear of falling into the present.

with nothing to offer but stones
I offered stones, in lamplight
spilled across a cobbled road
a child appeared, and made
a home for me in water
that rippled our reflections
wavered the winter trees
and these I hung with flames

These ripples circle out into the rest of the film, into the coffee bowl that Pierre holds when he visits his friend Carlos, to help him construct a circular cage for his birds, into the music of the Tibetan ceremony that they listen to, into the windows of the derelict temple on the hilltop that Françoise first sees while looking through the facets of one of Pierre’s stones, into the finger bowl into which Pierre drops a stone at a wedding lunch when he cannot be with Françoise, into the dampened glass rims on which fingers circle their notes, into the broken rim of a champagne glass that cuts Pierre at his private Christmas celebration with Françoise at the derelict temple.

During one of their Sundays, Pierre carries Françoise through the trees around the lake. She stretches out across his arms as if she is floating upside-down and dreams of a Christmas together, a fir tree hung with stars and garlands, and glistening champagne, this image resonating with Madeleine’s eyes as Pierre tries to tell her, but cannot, why he is happier these days. The curious mixture of healing with subterfuge and misunderstood intentions, the adult conversations and emotions between children, one of whom is an adult, is too difficult to broach. Then winter comes and the lake is iced over. Their stone skitters across the surface, and they must break the ice with a foot for their weekly homecoming ceremony.

As part of his Christmas gift, Pierre hangs the boughs of trees around the ruined building  with candles liberated from the church, and which shine like picture-book stars in their own sky. As her gift of thanks and love to Pierre, Françoise gives him the one thing that matters more to her than anything – her real name, the ancient one the nuns have tried to erase, which she writes on a piece of paper that she tucks into a matchbox and hangs on a tree. Her name is Cybèle, the earth mother, goddess of trees and the earth, of fertility and nature, of regeneration.

Meanwhile, the film has been heading ineluctably towards the tragedy borne of misunderstanding that has been intimated all along, the payment perhaps for Pierre’s actions against the earth that began the film, but which is worked through people’s habitual suspicions about the couple.

Best to leave instead with two of the many beautiful images from the film that come to my mind. The first is of the headscarfed Madeleine, secretly watching Pierre and Francoise in the trees by the lakeside to assuage her fears. As she sees them playing, listening to trees, her face relaxes into a smile tinged with melancholy as she turns and walks away.

Secondly, I think of the smiling, earnest face of Cybèle, eyes sparkling with promise in the light of a fire, as she tells Pierre that when she drinks her Christmas champagne she will make a wish, a wish that they will go to the seaside. She has never been, but she has read that there you can see fish that have wings, and which can fly.

when the water froze
glints of ice lodged in men’s eyes
let us go to the sea, the child said
I have heard there are fish that fly
this I can give you

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