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Over the years countless films have been made about war, its horrors and its devastations. Few, however, have been as moving and heartfelt as René Clément’s Forbidden Games. The Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 1952, this deeply touching French drama has stirred the emotions of every moviegoer who has had the good fortune to see it.
Set in 1940, Forbidden Games recounts a period during World War II when scores of Parisians fled into the countryside as the German army approached the capital. One such refugee is the film’s heroine, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), a five-year-old girl who finds herself an orphan when a German air strike massacres her parents before her tiny horrified eyes. Confused, helpless, and terrified, the child finds temporary shelter when a peasant farm family takes her in. She also discovers companionship in the family’s young son, Michel (Georges Poujouly), a boy only a few years older than herself.
Trying to make sense of her situation, Paulette, with Michel’s help, begins to enact a curious ritual. Collecting the corpses of dead animals, the children construct a cemetery for them in the ruins of an abandoned barn. Fascinated by the crosses she sees in church, Paulette encourages Michel to take some of the religious symbols to decorate their strange playground.
As might be expected, such efforts lead to disaster. Stealing crosses from the church cemetery ignites the long-smoldering feud between the farm family and their next-door neighbors. When the cause of the commotion is discovered, the thoughtless and insensitive adults separate the children from one another, destroying their brief idyll, returning little Paulette to the state of despair and confusion from which she started.
In dramatic terms, it’s a fairly simple story, one whose connection to war’s ghastliness may seem slight at first; yet, so subtle and thoughtful is Clément’s direction, and so insightful is the script Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost adapted from François Boyer’s story, we don’t miss a single telling point. And, Brigitte Fossey’s remarkable performance plays no small part in all of this.
Fossey’s is quite simply one of the most uncanny pieces of acting ever attempted by a youngster. Clément’s sensitivity doubtless accounts for much of what we see here, but the rest is clearly Fossey’s own. (It is no surprise that she has gone on to a successful career as an acting adult.) With the solid support of Georges Poujouly as Michel, Forbidden Games lets us experience a child’s coming to grips with the facts of death from their perspective. At the same time, the filmmaker also provides us with a sharply critical picture of provincial French life.
The war may be raging only a mile away, yet these peasants seem untouched by it—far more dedicated as they are to their own petty bickering. The church, the chief battleground of their fighting, is likewise scored as an institution entrenched in dogma and unable to deal with the people it supposedly is serving. Only the children in their funeral games seem to be striving for some sense of true spiritual peace. Ironically, it’s the very process of their pursuit that leads to all the trouble.
This critical point wasn’t lost on a young and very conservative François Truffaut who, in his most early critical polemic “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema,” cited scriptwriters Aurenche and Bost for what he saw as “sacrilege” in their designs. Yet, as Truffaut’s later career shows, the truth of Forbidden Games was not lost on him for good. Its tale of children lost in a world ruled by uncomprehending adults finds its match in his own first feature, The 400 Blows.
Still, what Clément’s film illustrates that Truffaut’s does not is the context of the war. In a world in turmoil, the first thing to be sacrificed is childhood innocence. As Forbidden Games shows, it is terrible sacrifice. Yet, at the same time, the film exhibits a spirit of hope, a spirit which shines through the bleak horrors of war. Though Paulette is alone and frightened, we still sense that somehow she’ll survive. It is this deep respect for the human spirit that gives Forbidden Games its very special glow.