René Clément is a lauded director from the immediate pre- New Wave era and as such missed out on the critical accolades given the trendier Godards and Truffauts. In fact, the Cahiers du Cinema critics made it their business to take control of French film criticism by condemning previous "prestige" trends in French filmmaking.
Forbidden Games is a true classic, one of those films one doesn't forget. Thanks to a pair of near-perfect juvenile performances, the movie hits us from two sides simultaneously -- it's a gripping drama and a peerless allegory for what art films used to call "the human condition."
In different hands Forbidden Games could easily be rendered as a perverse satire or subversive tract along the lines of the better works of Luis Buñuel. Little Paulette and Michel are more adorable versions of the amoral children in Buñuel's Los Olvidados. Ignored and misunderstood, the tykes create their own little world based on what they know and observe. The context is war, and Paulette's family is driven from Paris and killed from the air by German planes. Petite fille Paulette knows life in simple terms. She doesn't fully appreciate the death of her parents and struggles to understand the passing of her little dog. Surrounded by killing and death, Paulette invents a burial ritual for her pet and is soon conniving to get Michel to help her construct a little morbid graveyard, with crosses and other paraphernalia stolen from the churchyard. Unlike Buñuel, Forbidden Games isn't interested in criticizing the institution of the Church. It instead compares and contrasts the foolish concerns of the parents with the bizarre behavior of the alienated children.
The adults are simple peasants possessing few of the graces traditionally attributed to farming people. The Dolle family is constantly at odds with their neighbors the Gouards, jealous over trivialities and quick to accuse them of low deeds. The competition is clearly a war in miniature, with all adult behavior reduced to spite and violence. Although Forbidden Games never takes on the tone of a farce, the spat between Papa Dolle (Lucien Hubert) and Papa Gouard (André Wasley) goes so far as to have them fight even after falling together into a freshly-dug grave. The hidden satire in Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost's script goes even further; all we really remember about Paulette's parents is that they argued with each other. 1
What keeps Forbidden Games on an even dramatic keel are the near-perfect performances from the two kids. Little Brigitte Fossey is a five year-old Parisian charmer, frightened but adaptable and already possessing the ability to get a man (eight or nine year-old Georges Poujoly) to do her bidding. Never was wrongdoing so clearly expressed -- when Paulette pouts for more decorations, Michel's brain goes into neutral and he becomes a church vandal. Everything is an amoral mystery, including the staring owl that watches over Michel and Paulette's secret cemetery with its handwritten grave markers.
The film is utterly realistic about Paulette's new farm life. She's charmed by the animals and enjoys feeding the chicks. But death seems to be at the center of everything. No sooner has Paulette arrived than the eldest Dolle son is laid low, kicked by a horse and obviously suffering from internal injuries. His parents lamely offer him Castor Oil and fret while he slowly succumbs. Michel's sister finds out about the kids' thievery but the clever Michel silences her by threatening to expose her haystack liaisons with the son of the hated Gouards.
None of the adults means the slightest harm but they also cannot begin to understand what Paulette or Michel are up to, and we dread what will happen when the underage thieves are caught. Intergenerational communication is so lacking that the kids live secret little lives, until the farmer and his wife get wise to their game. Paulette is so young and impressionable that she immediately decides she's a new member of the Dolle family. We know that another traumatic separation is inevitable.
The New Wave critics were right about at least one aspect of the film. Forbidden Games becomes emotionally devastating simply by letting us share young Paulette's unnervingly realistic distress. The ending is unforgettable not because it is all that inspired in conception, but because we're never going to forget that anguished little face calling out in the crowd of refugees.
Criterion's disc of Forbidden Games presents this expressive picture in a carefully polished restored video version. The B&W photography is consistently handsome and shows director Clément mixing war newsreels with his own staged action, as he did in his exciting Battle of the Rails and Is Paris Burning? Narciso Yepes' guitar score is seldom noted, but it is so beautiful, it brought my wife from another part of the house to investigate.
Criterion's producers Jason Altman and Heather Shaw have put together a tidy extras package. Director Clément appears in archival interviews both alone and with star Brigitte Fossey, in the late 1960s when she restarted her acting career. Fossey has returned for a new interview discussing the picture in depth and she's still utterly charming. Film scholar Peter Matthews contributes a lengthy essay on the picture for the insert booklet. The movie was considered by many to be in horrible taste, and France declined to exhibit it at Cannes. An emotional trailer is included as well.
An unexpected extra is an alternate opening and closing that shows the same two child actors together, with the boy reading a book (the one in the titles and credits) telling the story of the movie. When she cries at the sad ending, the boy assures the girl that Michel and Paulette will be reunited and live happily ever after. Criterion's notes tell us that there's no record of the film being shown anywhere with these scenes, and venture that the bookend framework may have been prepared for a preview. The excerpt starts with announcements of film festival wins, indicating that it was more likely an afterthought filmed for potential export use ... perhaps as a commercial 'softener' to mitigate the perceived downer ending.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Forbidden Games rates:
1. Although I've seen nothing written about this, it also seems possible that little Paulette is Jewish. At five we don't necessarily expect a Catholic child to know all about prayers and sacraments, but Paulette doesn't even know what a cross is, as if she's never seen one. Perhaps she's just an unusually sheltered kid from a completely non-churchgoing family. Or are there obvious clues to this that Savant missed?