The Elusive but Wonderful Films of Patricia Gozzi
Published on February 4th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer17
Four films in circulation out of a total of seven is not that bad, of course. And there is hope that one or two, if not all three of the unreleased titles will eventually become available, as “Quai Notre-Dame” and “Un Hôtage” star, respectively, Anouk Aimée and Simone Signoret, both critically acclaimed actresses. “Le Grabuge,” however, stands perhaps the best chance of being released on DVD in the near future, at least in France, as “Hollywood sur Seine,” a documentary about the 1968 film’s ill-fated production and distribution, is scheduled to air on French television in March. The documentary’s director, Michel Ferry, is the son of Christian Ferry, who produced both “Rapture” and “Le Grabuge” for legendary Hollywood studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and his company, 20th Century Fox. This familial connection, as well as the younger Ferry’s own long career working in cinema with New Wave directors like Louis Malle and Eric Rohmer, has no doubt helped him construct what is sure to be a detailed and informative account of “Le Grabuge’s” making and theatrical release, the latter of which appears to have been delayed by five years when, on January 15, 1969, Zanuck refused to distribute the film due to its “anti-bourgeois violence.” Although no DVD release of “Le Grabuge” has been scheduled, it has never stood a better chance of becoming available now that it has a “special feature” in the works. After all, what good is a “making of” documentary without the actual feature film that it documents?
Gozzi’s films have been ignored or relegated to obscurity perhaps in large part because, with the exception of “Léon Morin, Priest,” none were directed by auteurs, the film artists whose oeuvres are most valued by critics, theorists, and historians of film. But I’d like to make a case that Gozzi herself should be celebrated as a great film artist and thus deserves for the films in which she acted to be brought to wider public attention. To quote film scholar Bert Cardullo, writing in 2004, “If there were no other reason to see ‘Sundays and Cybèle,’ Gozzi, who here gives a performance of unusual depth and range, would be a compelling one. She is beyond any doubt the most sensitive and beautiful preteen in the history of the screen (having stopped acting at age twenty), making a once-famous child star like Patty Duke seem about as authentic and winning as a television commercial for McDonald’s.”
Gozzi is best known for her role as Cybèle in “Sundays and Cybèle,” in which she plays a twelve-year-old girl abandoned by her father at an orphanage in Ville d’Avray, a small town outside of Paris. A resident of the town, Pierre, an amnesiac bomber pilot played by Hardy Krüger, befriends Cybèle by posing as her father. In the course of a few Sunday outings together, Cybèle and Pierre develop an intense but innocent friendship, a kind of platonic romance that, sadly, is looked upon with suspicion and unease by the townsfolk. Krüger’s and Gozzi’s performances, the centerpiece and highlight of the film, succeed due to Krüger’s ability to seem childlike in spite of his thirty-four years and Gozzi’s ability to convey an almost preternatural maturity in spite of being only twelve. I would be remiss, however, if I did not add that these performances are aided immeasurably by French New Wave veteran Henri Decaë’s cinematography, which gives poetic illustration to the film’s changing moods and dialogue, and Maurice Jarre’s music, which perfectly complements Decaë’s images and the actors’ performances. Incidentally, Gozzi worked with both of these filmmaking professionals in her earlier work. Decäe photographed her in “Léon Morin, Priest”; and Jarre composed the score for Gozzi’s first film, “Recours en grâce.”
Although Cybèle was Gozzi’s first starring role, she had already demonstrated a great talent for dramatic performance in small roles in “Recours en grâce,” “Quai Notre-Dame” and “Léon Morin, Priest.” As of this writing, I have only seen the first and third of these films, but they are enough to convince me of Gozzi’s profound gifts as an actress. In both films she was cast inspiredly as the daughter of a character played by Emmanuelle Riva, whom she resembles both physically and in emotional temperament. Gozzi was clearly recognized as a younger version of Riva, and the re-casting of her as Riva’s daughter suggests that at least a few people were struck by their resemblance. Gozzi’s performances in her two films with Riva, particularly “Recours en grâce,” in which she plays a larger supporting role, show an emotional sophistication and intensity of expression exceedingly rare in child actors. It is unsurprising that Gozzi’s career began steadily developing following her début in “Recours en grâce,” as her performance in that film is as powerful and memorable as those of the three adult leads. And it can’t have hurt Gozzi’s career that one of the young French New Wave directors’ most admired mentors, Jean-Pierre Melville, cast her in 1961 in his film “Léon Morin, Priest.”
Although admired today by many loyal fans around the world, “Sundays and Cybèle” was met with mixed reviews upon its initial release, and for many critics and scholars, it has not aged well. Oddly, considering that it is a French film, it premiered in New York City, where it did tremendously well. Many writers in the American press thoroughly praised the film. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called it a “motion-picture masterpiece,” and Gozzi’s performance “sheer magic,” accolades that no doubt helped draw crowds during the film’s more than six-month run. Meanwhile, however, according to film scholar Richard Neupert, “Sundays and Cybèle” could not find a distributor in France despite good reviews, partly because Cahiers du cinéma liked neither Bourguignon nor his film.” Back in the United States, the outpouring of praise by Crowther and others seems to have inspired a backlash from critics like Pauline Kael, who offered an irrelevant impression not worth quoting, Andrew Sarris, who called “Sundays and Cybèle” “an overrated trick film,” and Stanley Kauffmann, who called it “the most overpraised picture in years.” Interestingly, though, the one aspect of “Sundays and Cybèle” that Kauffmann praised was “young Patricia Gozzi’s extraordinary performance.” After winning numerous other prizes, “Sundays and Cybèle” was nominated for and then won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which scholar Dudley Andrew suggests it received by dint of “the fetching adolescent innocence of Patricia Gozzi and the lyricism of Henri Decaë’s cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s music.”
Gozzi’s portrayal of the little girl in “Sundays and Cybèle” so impressed Darryl F. Zanuck that the setting for her subsequent film, “Rapture,” was switched from England to France to accommodate casting her in the lead role. She plays Agnès, a creative and intelligent, but emotionally abused, and thus developmentally stunted fifteen-year old who falls in love with twenty-eight-year-old Joseph, a fugitive from the law who is, however, a victim of circumstance. Joseph, played with great subtlety and reserve by Dean Stockwell, rescues Agnès from her troubled emotional and psychological state in much the same way that Cybèle does for Pierre in “Sundays and Cybèle.” In addition to Gozzi and Stockwell, the cast of “Rapture” includes the great Classic Hollywood actor Melvyn Douglas, who plays Agnès’s father, a retired judge alienated from both society and his young daughter, and Ingmar Bergman regular Gunnel Lindblom. “Rapture” benefits immensely from this exceptional cast, the film’s beautiful bucolic setting on the coast of Brittany, and Georges Delerue’s gorgeous score, thankfully available now on CD, although as a modern rerecording.
A publicity description from the time of “Rapture”’s production describes the film as a “shattering odyssey of a young girl transported by love from a childhood world of fantasy to an adult world of reality.” As such, “Rapture”’s scenario is in some ways the inverse of that of “Sundays and Cybèle,” in which the characters cope with the frightening adulthood/childhood realities of their lives by retreating together into a shared world of fantasy. This tension between reality and fantasy appears to be the theme that binds together all three of the films in which Gozzi was cast in the central role, for in the last of those films, “Le Grabuge,” Gozzi plays a girl named Dina who, according to the November 1968 issue of Films and Filming, “is being pressed into a marriage she abhors by her wealthy upper-class parents, but [who] finds escape in a ‘fantasy’ world in which she can ignore all the conventions of her upbringing and [in which] she becomes the leader of a gang of young hoodlums.” If consistencies of form and content are marks identifying a film professional as a true artist, then in Gozzi’s case, those marks are her physical person (consistent by nature) and her abstract persona, developed across all of her films, but honed especially in “Sundays and Cybèle,” “Rapture” and “Le Grabuge,” of an individual suspended, within variations on the coming-of-age tale, between reality and fantasy.