We must turn to the past for a film as innocent as
"Forbidden Games" (1952), because our own time is too cynical to
support it. Here is a film about children using their powers of fantasy and
denial to deal with death in wartime. A modern film would back away from the
horror and soften and sentimentalize it. It would become a "children's
film." But in all times children have survived experiences that no child
should have to endure.
they're able to shield their innocence by creating games to process the pain.
"Forbidden Games" was attacked and praised by adults for the same
reason: because it showed children inventing happiness where none should exist.
The Japanese animated film "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) is another
rare film with the courage to walk this path.
film begins during the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. We meet a 5-year-old
girl named Paulette, with her parents. The road out of Paris is clogged with
those escaping the city. It is being strafed by Nazi fighter planes. Paulette's
little dog runs onto a bridge. She chases it, and her parents desperately run
after her. Bullets kill both parents and fatally wound the dog. Paulette, lying
on the ground next to her mother, reaches out a hand to touch the dead cheek,
and then touches her own cheek. She does not cry. She does not quite
understand. She holds her puppy. Its legs jerk spasmodically for a long time
before it dies.
is given a ride by strangers. The man throws her dog into the river. She jumps
off their cart and runs down to save the dog, and is seen by a young local boy
named Michel, the young son of the Dolle family, peasants on a nearby farm. She
is taken in by the Dolles and immediately becomes Michel's favorite. He will
give his blanket to her. He will demand that the family keep her. He will have
love between the two children is almost too pure and simple to be believed --
unless you can remember being a child. For some reason, we remember best the
children we hated, or who hated us. But with a playmate we can construct a
world so compelling that all our thoughts are given to its creation and
maintenance. With Jackie, the girl next door, I spent days building a toy
village on the dining room floor, around an electric train set. It was so
elaborate, so invested with our stories of what each house meant, that when it
had to be "cleaned up," we felt a hurt no adult could imagine.
(Brigitte Fossey) determines to bury her dog. Michel (Georges Poujouly) helps
her, because she isn't big enough to handle the hoe she has stolen. The grave
is hidden in an abandoned mill. They need a crucifix for it, and Michel hammers
one from lumber. Paulette has never really dealt with the deaths of her
parents. She acknowledges that they are gone, but they are gone in theory, not
practice; that they are truly dead forever seems to elude her. Yet she becomes
fascinated with death, and Michel joins her in burying a mole that was captured
by an owl. Soon they are burying every dead thing they can find, even worms,
even broken plates. At one point, while they are lying side by side on the
floor doing his homework, he stabs a cockroach with his pen. "Don't kill
him! Don't kill him!" she cries, and he says, "I didn't. It was a
bomb that killed him."
study of this scene reveals a curious detail. She presses to the ground as she
cries out, and we cannot see her face. If we happen to look at Michel's face,
we will notice that his lips are moving, although we do not hear his voice.
Clearly the scene was constructed in the editing room, matching her voice to
visuals that did not match. That's possibly an indication of the difficulties
the director, Rene Clement, had in directing children so young in a story so
fraught. But for the most part the children are astonishingly natural and
convincing, and in an interview much later, Fossey remembered with a smile that
Clement asked her to cry "a little more" or "a little less"
and she fine-tuned her tears.
cemetery grows larger. They begin to steal crucifixes to put above the graves.
Paulette, who does not know her prayers, or about the Stations of the Cross, or
what a crucifix is, must be Jewish. Michel innocently teaches her, and that
knowledge could eventually save her life. There is a comic subplot involving a
rural feud between the Dolles and their neighbors, the Gouards, who accuse each
other of stealing crucifixes; at one point a fight in the cemetery ends with
two brothers fighting and falling into a grave. All the while the secret
cemetery in the old mill grows more elaborate.
Games" was the first feature by Rene Clement; his short film on the same
story was seen by the director Jacques Tati, who told him it must become a
feature. It came (as Tati did) from outside the French film establishment; its
producer, Robert Dorfmann, had powerful enemies.
film was initially turned down by Cannes, then accepted after a scandal. It was
turned down by Venice because it had played at Cannes, but accepted after
another uproar, and won the Golden Lion as best film, with a best actress award
for Fossey (she grew up to make many more good films). It won an honorary Oscar
in 1953. Yet one critic said the film itself should be forbidden. Clement was
accused simultaneously of trivializing the war and inflicting its horrors too
mercilessly on his actors. Leftist critics accused him of an attack on the
working class, although his poor peasant farmers are the most warm and generous
be sure, it is remarkable that Fossey was able to weather this experience at 5.
Poujouly, her co-star, was 9 or 10. She remembers doing better than older
actresses at the audition because she had no idea what stakes were involved;
they were nervous, but she just went ahead and did as she was told. Clement
"shot around" her character as much as possible, shooting close-ups
of her looking at events so she did not really have to witness them, and she
remembers attending the premiere at Cannes and seeing the planes attack the
bridge for the first time. She was horrified.
beautifully restored new Criterion DVD of the film includes an alternate
beginning and ending, filmed but never used, in which the scenario is framed as
a "story" from a book that Michel reads to Paulette.
film is so powerful because it does not compromise on two things: the horror of
war and the innocence of childhood. Fossey's face becomes a mirror that refuses
to reflect what she must see and feel. She transposes it all into the game of
burying the dead and placing crosses over them.
cinematographer, Robert Juillard, always places a little additional light on
her face and blond hair, suggesting an angel without insisting on it. Only
gradually do we come to understand the total power that their fantasy has over
the children, and what measures they will take in its defense. It is funny,
also sad, when Paulette fixates on every crucifix she sees, and Michel
confesses the theft of some crucifixes and then pauses on his way out of the
confessional to try stealing another one from the altar.
like Clement's "Forbidden Games" cannot work unless they are allowed
to be completely simple, without guile, transparent. Despite the scenes I have
described, it is never a tear-jerker. It doesn't try to create emotions, but to
observe them. Paulette cannot speak for herself, and the movie doesn't try to
speak for her. That's why it is so powerful: Her grief is never addressed, and
with the help of a boy who loves her, she surrounds it with a game that no
adult could possibly understand, or penetrate.
(Clement's "Purple Noon," the first big-screen
adaptation of one of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, is also reviewed in
the Great Movies section.)