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Cinema is a photographic trace of life. For that reason, it’s also a perpetual witness to mortality. Georges Poujouly, the child actor who stars, with Brigitte Fossey, in René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece Forbidden Games, died in 2000, at the age of sixty. But as Michel, the rude peasant boy at the beck and call of the imperious baby Paulette, he remains the image of enslaved, amorous youth forever. That’s both the consolation of cinema and the source of its hidden melancholy. For, naturally, most films repress the knowledge that they are destined to become graveyards teeming with ghosts. Forbidden Games is among the few that dare to break this ultimate taboo. Here is a movie obsessed—even besotted—with death. That the principal characters are at the beginning of life just deepens the scandal. We protest that children, in their touching defenselessness, must be shielded from death, pain, evil. In Clément’s film, these fundamental realities are prematurely thrust upon them by war. Yet the drama isn’t quite the traditional liberal indictment of militarism that one might expect. For once, the innocents aren’t turned into mere alibis for hand-wringing, editorializing, and moral blackmail on the part of well-meaning adults. As near as possible, Clément maintains the integrity of childhood—its aloofness, its impenetrability, its silence, which, beheld from the outside, can appear sinister. Technically, war is responsible for the strange, aberrant behavior of Michel and Paulette. To that extent, the film fulfills its ethical duty. But on a more profound level, death is answered by those dark, instinctual forces that reside in all children—in everyone, if we could only admit it.
The kernel of what would eventually become Forbidden Games was a somber and disquieting screenplay that its author, François Boyer, found impossible to sell. He expediently repackaged the contents as a novel, published in 1947 under the title The Secret Game and virtually ignored in France, but enjoying a major, if freakish, commercial success in America. Unexpectedly, it looked like a hot property, so Clément and the screenwriting partners Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost took Boyer’s film script–cum-novel and turned it back into a script. But that wasn’t the end of the movie’s tortuous prehistory. Forbidden Games was originally planned as a humble short subject—the middle section of a three-part omnibus film. This larger project got shelved after the financing fell through, and the existing footage composed no more than a vignette. But, impressed by its lyricism and grace, producer Robert Dorfmann urged Clément to expand the material to feature length.
Like many great films, then, Forbidden Games sprang serendipitously from a chain of accidents, failures, and stopgaps, none of which are remotely evident on-screen. Clément’s direction is so scrupulously measured, and the theme so archetypal, that every shot achieves the quality of fate. The French critic André Bazin judged there to be a novelistic control in the way the central situation is developed—astutely, inexorably, each psychological detail snapping into place. But if a literary analogy is sought, the film’s terse suggestiveness may be closer in spirit to a short story. While artfully embellishing the simple episode they started from, Aurenche and Bost (with the probable assistance of Boyer, who gets a dialogue credit) were careful to preserve its fragile, elliptical nature. Forbidden Games is a distinctly slender work. Which is to say that it’s exactly scaled to the intimate, laconic universe of children.
Set during the German blitzkrieg of Paris, in June 1940, the film opens with a mass of refugees fleeing the despoiled capital for the countryside. Suddenly, Luftwaffe planes streak into view, raining down terror and scattering the people on the ground like marbles. Clément choreographs the mayhem with a stark authenticity that validates his youthful training as a documentarian. At the same time, the scene is—ever so slightly—a pastiche or compendium of earlier war rhetoric in cinema. One shock cut (from a bomb dropping on the camera to a woman screaming in close-up) is straight out of Eisenstein, while the present-tense casualness of the violence evokes Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946)—not to mention Clément’s own previous foray into neorealism, the Resistance docudrama Battle of the Rails (1945). The subtle quotation marks around the action hint that the movie is perhaps less “real” and more ironic than it’s cracked up to be. For already a certain fantasy dimension infiltrates the harrowing imagery of war. When bullets from a machine gun tear through the backs of Paulette’s mother and father, the murder feels sickeningly contingent. Yet pasted on the bridge where they happen to be (and almost subliminally planted in the frame) is an advertising bill for spiritualists—“masters of mystery.” Both the bridge and the river flowing under it are thereby instantly changed into supernatural objects: emblems of transience, gateways dividing the quick from the dead. Similarly, a horse pulling a driverless carriage at a furious gallop is both an ordinary frightened beast and an uncanny figure of doom. It’s this vehicle that Paulette capriciously follows, abandoning the contemporary slaughter, straying into an enchanted region where death will attain the perverse beauty of an idyll.
Her crossing over is signaled by the introduction of Narciso Yepes’s famous guitar solo. Naive and plangent, the music almost literally haunts the film, summoning an ache of nostalgia for some pristine era beyond memory. Forbidden Games partakes of myth, in the narrow anthropological sense, by generating its meaning from a network of structural oppositions: child and adult, city and country, male and female, human and animal, life and death, history and eternity. There’s a shade of screwball farce in the plot gambit that brings Paulette and Michel together—he bumps into her while chasing a runaway cow. And, indeed, numerous critics have caviled at the movie’s broad, cartoonish portrayal of rural manners. It’s true that Clément tends to patronize the folk characters as irredeemable clodhoppers (most disturbingly, in the episode where Michel’s father scuffles with a bellicose neighbor at the bottom of a newly dug grave). But it’s at least arguable whether the specific poetry of Forbidden Games doesn’t depend on striking just so salient a contrast—as though a thick, protective shell were demanded to enclose the sovereign space of the children’s play. When Paulette and Michel steal crosses from the village church to adorn their own private cemetery of dead fauna (first her beloved dog, Jock, then moles, crickets, cockroaches, butterflies, birds, worms, buried in a mounting frenzy), they are at once blasphemers against and parodists of the official religion that the grown-ups practice so emptily. Yet in a world where the currency of death has been cheapened, their crimes ironically restore to it a portion of its original sacramental awe and gravity.
Christian forms are simply the pretext. These ghoulish games seem finally to invoke something more archaic and terrible—a mystical awareness, which might be called pagan, of nature’s unending cruelty. But Clément respects the enigma, and each plausible interpretation of the children’s conduct slips helplessly through one’s fingers. It may be supposed that Paulette is a model trauma victim, incapable of absorbing her parents’ death and obliged to grieve for them at second hand. That’s the easy, clinical rationale, and war’s thunder does continue to echo distantly on the soundtrack, as if in corroboration. Still, it isn’t sufficient to account for the element of precocious eroticism that tinges her relationship with Michel, insinuated by the faint double entendre of the movie’s title.
Clément shot a bizarre prologue and epilogue for Forbidden Games, apparently designed to throw the audience off the scent. Michel and Paulette, reincarnated as perfect visions of sugarplum sweetness, sit down on a vast tree trunk, in an ethereal, sylvan setting, and proceed to read from a gilt-embossed storybook the words: “Never had the month of June been so lovely as that year . . .” After the tale has been told, the girl cries bitterly, and the boy pacifies her by improvising a happier outcome. This framing device (which anticipates by three decades a conceit employed in another equivocal war elegy, the Taviani brothers’ The Night of the Shooting Stars) was not included in the final version of the film. It may have been deemed too whimsically self-reflexive and conciliatory at a time when harsh realist transparency was the norm in art cinema. It certainly would have cushioned the devastating abruptness of the ending as it stands, which annihilates everything in a stroke, leaving an open wound of pure loss. Yet Clément must equally have recognized how these saccharine appendixes made his scam a little obvious. For here, all too cloyingly, are the children that most adults prefer to see—as angelic and innocuously cuddlesome as the tykes in The Sound of Music. At its subversive heart, Forbidden Games whispers the less palatable truth that children are a race of deviants and monsters.
Even as presently constituted, the film leads you up the garden path with studiously cute images of Paulette among baby chicks and “glamour” shots emphasizing her likeness to a porcelain doll. That’s the way the farmers treat this dainty import from Paris—as a poppet to be toyed with for a moment and then discarded. Cleverer than the rest, Michel is also more romantic. Defending Paulette and gratifying her every humor, he enlists himself as an eager swain in the service of a beautiful but arbitrary princess. When the uncouth rustic helps the immaculate maiden to ford a stream, the fairy-tale iconography affirms a charming case of puppy love. But the nymph betrays sharper appetites in the scene where, leaning coquettishly on her pillow, she accepts the dowry of two freshly slain hatchlings. Fossey has compared her infantile alter ego with Lady Macbeth, and she isn’t far wrong. To be precise, Paulette is a diminutive version of the femme fatale in film noir, batting her huge, liquid eyes and spurring the mesmerized hero on to ever greater acts of bloodlust—with one crucial difference: Paulette is no bad seed out of a horror movie, but a completely ordinary toddler. Though Clément doesn’t stipulate her motives, we may deduce that they involve plain childish calculations of self-interest. Having lost one source of security and well-being, she casts around her environment and pragmatically reattaches her desires elsewhere. The supreme tour de force of Fossey’s naturalistic acting occurs in the aftermath of the bridge disaster. Touching her mother’s cheek and then her own, Paulette puzzles over the rudimentary concepts of warm and cold, alive and dead. The impious rites with corpses, the whole film, might be explained by the necessity of returning, again and again, to this compelling riddle that reality has tossed up.
Michel is old enough to have acquired a degree of consciousness and what goes with it, a capacity for guilt. But as a moral being, Paulette hasn’t progressed much further than the barnyard creatures that show their obtuse faces to us intermittently. Forbidden Games is most paradoxical in demonstrating the equivalence of absolute innocence and absolute evil. A poisoned chalice, to say the least, the movie was, not surprisingly, excluded from competition at the Cannes Film Festival, though it went on to win the Golden Lion in Venice and an honorary Oscar in 1952. One is tempted to speculate that the Academy voters didn’t understand what they had, and mistook Clément’s mordant irony for a pellucid humanism along the lines of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves. Nonetheless, the picture was established as a classic and held that position for many years. So why has it been neglected in recent times? The vagaries of Clément’s subsequent career may have dampened enthusiasm in hindsight. Drifting from a sex comedy filmed in England (Lovers, Happy Lovers, 1954) to a plush costume drama (Gervaise, 1956) to a tense homoerotic thriller (Purple Noon, 1960), he could seem an effete jack-of-all-trades, without the creative passion or stylistic coherence of a genuine auteur. But the coup de grâce had in fact been delivered long before, by one François Truffaut. In his blistering 1954 polemic “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” the future director of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim attacked not Clément, but his writers, the spectacularly successful team of Aurenche and Bost. He essentially accused them of having stultified French film by bogging it down in “quality” literary adaptations as genteel and polished as they were lifelessly uncinematic. It required a season or two for Truffaut’s venom to take effect, yet by the liberated nouvelle vague era, Aurenche and Bost had become watchwords for the clammy, moribund cinéma de papa. However unjustly, Forbidden Games was tarred with the same sweeping brush. Still, some of Truffaut’s more conservative strictures aren’t entirely beside the point. He objected, for instance, to the duo’s “mania for adding funerals everywhere,” which struck his residual Catholicism as cheap and sacrilegious. But it’s just this penchant that gives Forbidden Games its voluptuously morbid charge. For kiddie necrophilia, Paulette has no rival—unless it be young Tootie Smith, who ascribes four fatal diseases to her rag doll and babbles endlessly about homicide in Vincente Minnelli’s so-called family musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Much later, another little girl would use scrambled Christian ritual to commune with her deceased mother, in Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996). Yet Forbidden Games is perhaps the one movie wholly dedicated to the radical Freudian proposal that living matter seeks the comfort of oblivion. Seductive and troubling, it remains the chief embodiment of the death drive in cinema.
Peter Matthews teaches film studies at Middlesex University and the London College of Communication. He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.