It’s 1940, and the Nazi invasion of France is fully under way. A mother, father, a five-year-old girl and her tiny dog are among a throng of refugees fleeing Paris and jamming roads across the French countryside while German planes drop bombs and strafe their path with a relentless rain of machine gun fire. Soon the girl will be completely alone, her parents and that beloved dog all cut down in front of her eyes. But before she even has the chance to process what has happened (if she even can—on the most immediate level, she believes they’re only asleep), she’s given a ride by an older couple, one of whom cruelly flings the animal’s corpse, the only thing the girl has been able to save of her now-devastated familiar world, into a creek. The girl, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), jumps off their wagon, retrieves the dog’s body and is discovered by a young peasant boy, Michel (Georges Poujouly), who brings her to his parents’ farm where she is taken in, cared for, and where in Michel she discovers perhaps the first and only friend she has ever known in her brief life.
The remarkable forthrightness and lack of sentiment that provides the foundation of Rene Clement’s tenderly realized debut feature, 1952 film Forbidden Games, extends not only to the clear-eyed way in which it represents the horrors visited upon Paulette early on, but also to the friendship that develops between her and Michel. The understanding these two forge will be familiar to anyone who can reach back and remember the natural empathy which can exist between two playmates, even ones with little or no history together. Paulette seeks comfort and reassurance, and Michel, by far the youngest member of the Dolle family, sees someone younger than himself for whom he can be the provider of care, guidance and sympathetic attention, which is itself in short supply from his own mother and father, preoccupied as they are with their family’s survival in the path of the German insurgence.
Paulette has overheard the family discussing the disposal of the bodies of those killed in the ongoing attack, and Michel takes it upon himself to reluctantly, but no less matter-of-factly, explain to a sleepless Paulette that yes, her parents have probably been deposited into a mass grave and covered with dirt, a thought that surprisingly calms her. Now they are safe, she seems to think as she drifts off into a night’s rest. It’s a thought that facilitates the pattern of denial she’s already established, carrying her past the actual confrontation of her parents’ absence and what it really means. In the morning she has retrieved the stiffening corpse of her dog, determined to at least provide the same degree of comfort and safety for him.
With Michel’s help, she buries the dog in the bowels of an abandoned mill, under the watchful eye of an observant owl Michel claims to be at least a hundred years old. But she worries that her dog, without the sort of company her parents can provide each other in death, will be lonely in his grave. So the two friends begin burying all the dead animals they can find—a mole, a cat, a bird—next to the dog, creating a makeshift cemetery in the mill which they lovingly tend and decorate, first with handmade crosses and then with crosses they’ve begun to steal from the burial sites of the local (human) deceased.
Clement’s scenario establishes childish play as an almost reasonable and certainly justified way for these children to reduce the scale of the horror they find their families and themselves mired in. In fact, subtracting that opening sequence, the only engagement Clement orchestrates with the grim aggression of the war itself lies in the occasional thrum of a plane passing overhead and the almost incidental sound of ever-threatening explosions in the distance. The director, working from a screenplay adapted from Frances Boyer’s novel Le Jeux Iconnus by Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and Boyer himself, brings the war down to the scale of children, but the film’s point of view regarding it is the furthest thing from childish.
It’s a subject that would seem to lend itself to easy sentiment and jerked tears, but Clement, fashioning a sort of poetic realism in the wake of neorealists like Rossellini and De Sica, steers clear of exploiting the grim reality of war just as deftly and confidently as he manages to portray the interior world of these children and their concerns with clarity and empathy, without a tearjerker’s instincts. (Upon the film’s original screenings at Cannes and Venice in 1952, though the film was generally lauded and in fact won the Independent Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, the director was also accused by some critics of trivializing the circumstances of war, presumably by showing it primarily through the eyes of children.)
Brigitte Fossey would grow up to be an accomplished actress, appearing in such films as Francois Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977), Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (1974) and Robert Altman’s Quintet (1978), among many others, but considering she was a five-year-old appearing in her first film for Clement, the degree to which she’s able to embody Paulette as something other than a child actor craftily manipulated by professionals (which most certainly was the case) approaches the astonishing. Fossey actually won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and those who voted for her weren’t honoring a stunt—Clement uses Fossey’s natural innocence to inform and complement that of Paulette, of course, but Fossey’s performance is, independently, a remarkably expressive one, precocious and wounded at the appropriate turns with little in the way of obvious directorial interference to destroy the illusion of dramatic empathy she manages to create.
She and Poujouly, who was only 10 at the time of shooting, pull us into the enveloping fantasy of happiness that Paulette and Michel create together. The buffer from wounding reality those fantasies provide require secrecy because they’re too fragile to survive exposure, and Fossey’s countenance reveals the tender, unformed life that lies in the balance, one watched over by no more benevolent force than that considerate, becalmed owl who gazes down with indifference from the rafters of the mill over the children’s makeshift memorial.
Few films I can recall have had the courage to present the innocence of childhood, and that innocence’s concomitant and inevitable conclusion, in such honest terms—Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996) come to mind. (In an echo of Forbidden Games’ triumph, Ponette also won awards at the Venice Film Festival for Doillon and for its four-year-old star Victoire Thivisol, who was awarded the same Best Actress prize Fossey had won 44 years earlier, touching off a somewhat heated discussion of just how cognizant Thivisol may or may not have been about the performance for which she had been honored.)
But the heartrending conclusion of Clement’s film may also remind some viewers of another picture from a director who has traditionally been less allergic to sentiment than the Frenchman was in his debut—Steven Spielberg and his underrated 1987 epic Empire of the Sun. The reunion of mother, father and child in Spielberg’s film was remarkable (and remarkably moving) for its refusal to gussy up the moment in cheap uplift—there was a haunted numbness in young Christian Bale’s face which assured us, though he’d been returned to some semblance of the world he remembered, that nothing was or would be the same. Clement’s film reverses the circumstances that conclude Empire of the Sun and leaves us with the image of a child becoming lost, unnoticed in the throng of a bustling Parisian train station, in desperate pursuit of two adults she may see as ghostly embodiments of the parents wrenched from her so early on, one of whom shares a name with the only friend she’s ever had. “Michel! Michel! Michel” she cries, pleading to the man and woman who can’t possibly hear her above the noise of the crowd (and might ignore her if they did). It’s of course also a plea to the memory of her young friend, now also absent from her world, and with it Clement puts the finishing touch on the poetic and supremely empathetic endeavor of thoroughly breaking our hearts.
Forbidden Games (1952), which won the Independent Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival and eventually an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has been playing sporadic theatrical engagements throughout the year, and Rialto Pictures’ new digital restoration of the film will play in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater for a one-week engagement beginning tomorrow, August 28. Check the Rialto Pictures Web site for more information on other possible upcoming screenings as well as the movie’s future on home video.