Forbidden Games  – An Astonishingly Poignant Drama on Broken Childhood
Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (‘Jeux interdits’, 1952) — based on writer Francois Boyer’s novel — is one of the greatest films ever made on grief, war, and loss of childhood innocence. Scaled to perfectly fit the intimate view of children, the film explores the frail nature of humanity during wartime. Forbidden Games was a critical and commercial success in its time, receiving Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival. Yet the project had to pass lot of excruciating hurdles before getting made. Francois Boyer originally wrote the story as a screenplay, which due to its somber mood was virtually ignored by the French producers. In 1947, he published it as a novel (The Secret Game) and it didn’t receive much attention in France.
Director Rene Clement and his screenwriting partners, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (with the assistance of Boyer), turned the novel once again into a script, which eventually caught the attention of producer Robert Dorfmann (who later made notable films like The Great Silence, Le Cercle Rouge, Tristana, Trafic). Even then, The Forbidden Games was conceived as a short film. But the lyricism and astute psychological details in the narrative were later developed for a full-length feature (legend says that it was popular comedian Jacques Tati who convinced Clement to make this decision).
Forbidden Games opens with one of the most horrific yet bloodless sequences in cinema. Set in the year 1940, a large group of Parisian civilians flee to the French countryside. Five-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fosey) holds her pet dog as she moves with her parents, crossing an old stone bridge. A squadron of German fighter planes descends upon them, instantly killing Paulette’s parents and dog. The frightened girl wanders around the countryside, carrying the lifeless body of her dog. She runs into nine-year-old Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly), a peasant boy who brings her to his family’s farm. Papa and mama Dolle (Lucien Hubert and Suzanne Courtal) reluctantly shelter Paulette, although their immediate concern is the waning health of their elder son, Georges (Jacques Marin), who is kicked by a wild horse just as Paulette arrives at Dolle farm. The other members in the family include two daughters and a son, who has so far dodged the draft.
The Dolles also have a longstanding feud with their farming neighbors, The Gouards. Nevertheless, the eldest son of Gouard and eldest daughter of Dolle are frequently seen rolling in the hay. All such narrative threads might seem too familiar and schmaltzier. But these petty problems of the adults largely play in the background as the narrative is mostly concerned with the strong bond between Michel and Paulette. The girl’s brimming eyes and doll-like attire is the very definition of angelic. Rene Clement, however, gradually delves beneath the angelical exterior to reveal the depth of the child’s trauma. Paulette is strangely obsessed with death and she channels this obsession into Michel.
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Unable to process or even understand the concept of grief, Paulette and Michel engage in larcenous activities. Together, they create a burial ground (in an abandoned mill) for various dead creatures: starting from Paulette’s dog to mole, snails, cockroach, etc. In order to bless their private graveyard, Michel steal crucifixes. They even raid church cemetery to hoard holy markers. The Dolles and Gouards, in a sequence containing a touch of screwball comedy, accuse each other for the desecration. It’s ironic to observe how Paulette’s unconscious efforts to heal herself from the pain of death are considered blasphemous, whereas in the larger world the value of life is being cheapened by wars. The indifference and strictly coded nature of the adult’s world eventually busts the children’s grim fantasy. The narrative ends with a heartbreaking image, befitting the bleak set-up.
Rene Clement mostly directed short films and documentary shorts in the 1930s and before the end of World War II. In one of his early short film, he directed the then-obscure French comedian Jacques Tati. Clement’s post-war films were notable for its documentary aesthetic, especially The Battle of the Rails (1946) which got him Best Director prize at Cannes. But until Forbidden Games, Clement’s films were strictly confined to narrative involving French resistance in the Nazi-occupied France. In the 1960s, the directed reinvented himself through crime thrillers, ‘Purple Noon’ (1960), ‘Joy House’ (1964) and war drama, ‘Is Paris Burning?’ — all three featuring the terrific Alain Delon.
But despite winning numerous awards and achieving commercial success, Clement was never attributed with the sort of reverence generally evoked by nouvelle vague film-makers or older French masters like Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir. In fact, the later-day French New Wave film-makers like Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (then the critics of Cahiers du cinema) detested Clement’s works (even though the influential French film theorist Andre Bazin admired the film-maker). Yet a bunch of Clement’s movies have stood the test of time with Forbidden Games being the most celebrated among them.
Forbidden Games unfolds in a novelistic manner while keeping intact the graceful cinematic expressions. The interesting aspect of Clement’s direction is the lack of moralistic attitude. He is more focused in attuning the narrative to the traumatized child’s psychology. Despite casting a cherubic face in the central role, Clement glimpses into the slightly distressing notes in Michel-Paulette relationship, particularly the way the genteel kid goads Michel to fulfill her fantasies. Moreover, Clement’s direction is so naturalistic that it seems he’s just observing the kids in the moment.
The techniques employed to harvest such affecting yet unsentimental performances from the children are almost invisible. The film-maker achieves stark authenticity right from the opening scene (of Luftwaffe bombings) and his roots in documentary film-making has helped him to incorporate bleak realism in a matter-of-fact manner. Some of the criticisms directed against the narrative are certainly valid, for e.g., the patronizing, cartoonish portrayal of rural folk. Nevertheless, the captivating Forbidden Games (86 minutes) should be eventually appreciated for what it means to be: a poetic fable gazing at the world of grief, death, and destruction from the innocence of childhood.