Judging old movies by contemporary mores is a tricky business. Smug superiority isn’t the ideal frame of mind for much of anything in life, but it’s particularly toxic when regarding the past; self-congratulation gets in the way of engagement, with problematic aspects of otherwise superlative work looming so large that it becomes hard to see past them. Open-mindedness comes even harder when the film’s retroactively repellent aspect is front and center.

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In 1962, the French drama Sundays And Cybèle was accepted more or less at face value by audiences, critics, and AMPAS voters (who handed it the foreign-language Oscar). A half-century later, it’s still highly regarded enough to be released as part of the Criterion collection, but trigger warnings have become necessary. Words like “provocative” and “incendiary” feature in the jacket copy, and the booklet essay (by Ginette Vincendeau), while admiring, takes a largely defensive posture, explaining why the film is excellent in spite of its apparent ickiness. Some will be convinced. Others (see attached grade) will not.

Things start out innocuously enough. While waiting on a train platform, a Vietnam vet named Pierre (German actor Hardy Krüger) encounters a young girl (Patricia Gozzi), about 12 years old, who’s being carted off to an orphanage by her father. Although Dad promises to return, Pierre finds evidence that he’s dumped her there permanently, and soon begins taking the girl—called Françoise by the nuns, though she insists that her real name is something else (big hint: the title)—on excursions every Sunday, posing as her father. So far so good… except that it isn’t long before Françoise/Cybèle declares her love for Pierre and begins talking excitedly about their future marriage. Rather than deflect these feelings, Pierre appears to share them, to the consternation of his girlfriend (Nicole Courcel), in whom he has little or no interest.

According to Vincendeau’s essay, Pierre has an explicitly pedophilic past in Sundays And Cybèle’s source novel (written by Bernard Eschassériaux and published in 1958), though he never crosses the line with Cybèle. Director Serge Bourguignon, who also co-wrote the screenplay, omitted that material, and the relationship between Pierre and Cybèle in the movie is clearly meant to transcend such base impulses. Even Pierre’s girlfriend, who’s initially appalled to discover that he’s been lying to her for weeks and taking romantic walks in the park with a pre-adolescent girl, changes her tune after she spies on the two of them together, concluding that they’re both fundamentally innocent. She isn’t around, however, when Cybèle cheerfully inquires of Pierre, “And you? Will you give me the steeple cock someday?” This refers to a metal rooster atop a church steeple, which Cybèle had previously challenged Pierre to climb up and retrieve for her, but the vibe between them is so damn creepy that the line plays like a grotesque wink.

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Even if one can accept the idea of a romantic yet non-sexual bond between an adult and a child, as folks willingly did back in 1962, Sundays And Cybèle still indulges a noxious trope that could be called “they were just too pure for this ugly world.” In order not to be skeeved out by the movie, it’s necessary to regard Pierre—who’s haunted by the possibility that he killed a Vietnamese girl when his fighter jet crashed—as an honorary kid, so that he and Cybèle are essentially acting out the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” In other words: Hooray for emotional regression! Should that notion seem less than admirable, there’s not much else to enjoy, apart from some striking black-and-white Franscope (the French name for CinemaScope) compositions. Bourguignon, who’s still alive at 86, made only two more films after this one, both of which are long forgotten; had Sundays And Cybèle not won an Oscar, it likely would have drifted into obscurity as well. Criterion’s stamp of approval will give it a boost, but expect more resistance than usual to the implication that it’s a classic ripe for the canon. Changing times do evolve past some things.

Sundays And Cybèle is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.