Judge Joe Armenio is glad to see this strange and poignant film finally available on DVD.
"In they go, like dogs."
French director René Clément remains famous among film buffs for two things: making Forbidden Games, and being one of the allegedly staid and uncinematic fogeys smeared by François Truffaut's 1954 polemic "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," one of the founding texts of the Nouvelle Vague (the article also targeted Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, the screenwriters of Forbidden Games). On its release in 1952, Forbidden Games was a huge international success and has maintained a strong reputation, despite (or maybe because of) its resistance to categorization. It fits rather uneasily with Clément's other work; it's influenced by but isn't quite a neorealist film; pace Truffaut, it also doesn't yield very well to the retrospective desire to understand 1950s French films as being either progressive anticipations of the Nouvelle Vague, or conservative enemies of it. But these issues are related to the cinephilic need to rank and categorize, rather than to the film itself, which, while frustratingly flawed, remains one of the richer and more mysterious cinematic responses to World War II.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with a group of Parisians advancing through the French countryside on a sunny June day in 1940, attempting to escape the oncoming Nazis and eventually falling victim to an air raid. Five-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) is left alone when her parents (and dog) are killed in the raid; wandering alone, she meets an 11-year-old farm boy named Michel (Georges Poujouly), whose family agrees reluctantly to take her in. Michel and Paulette become friends and attempt to understand the mysterious process by which adults make sense of death. Picking up on half-understood prayers and rituals, they set out to bury Paulette's dog, and eventually they give the dog company by constructing a pet cemetery which mimics the town's human burial ground. They go so far as to steal crosses, an act which earns them the disdain of the adults.
The opening air-raid sequence is horrifyingly matter-of-fact in its brutality; there is no incidental music, no aestheticized or distanced depictions of death. It's the sort of scene that wouldn't have been imaginable before Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classics Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero, all of which are blunt and traumatized depictions of war. After this first scene, Forbidden Games retreats to the margins of the war, dealing with the ways in which people attempt to process and understand the deaths it has caused.
The film takes a grim view of the motivations of all its adults: The gigantic, tragic adult folly of war is set against more mundane human weakness, in the form of the ongoing petty dispute between Michel's family, the Dolles, and their neighbors, the Gouards. Nor are the adults able to understand the deaths that their actions cause; their religion attempts to domesticate death, to explain it and rid it of strangeness, but their prayers and rituals are revealed as gibberish by the children's desperate and confused attempts to adopt them. Why is a cross the proper symbol to consecrate death, they wonder? Why do we say these words over a grave instead of others? Why indeed? When they suggest that dead people are put in holes to keep them dry, it seems that this is as good an explanation as any.
It would be easy to see Forbidden Games as morally simple, endorsing the innocent children as opposed to the corrupted adults, but in fact the behavior of Paulette and Michel is disturbingly macabre. Fossey herself talks insightfully about this in the 2001 interview found on this disc, in which she says that Forbidden Games is a film about the ways in which war makes monsters of children. The greatest achievement of the film is its refusal to sentimentalize or idealize its children, to reduce them to tiny receptacles of virtue or cutely precocious voices of reason; instead they behave according to their own, only dimly understandable logic, absorbing the lessons of the adult world in strange and, in the context of widespread death, upsetting ways. Michel, desperate to impress the demanding Paulette, takes to killing animals to provide corpses for the pet cemetery. In one especially striking scene he presents his friend with an offering of dead chicks, which she accepts with a look of sleepy satisfaction that can only be described as sensual; what other lesson, the film is saying, do we expect our children to learn, when we show them so graphically that life is cheap?
Forbidden Games was originally made in 1951 as a short film, part of an omnibus picture that was never finished; according to Peter Matthews in his booklet essay, producer Robert Dorfmann suggested that Clément expand it to feature length (in her interview, Fossey says that the suggestion came from Jacques Tati). The film was completed in 1952, with Fossey wearing two false teeth to replace those she had lost in the interval; Poujouly had gotten a haircut for another role and was given a wig to wear. These adjustments were seamless, and I'd have no idea about the wig or false teeth were it not for the supplemental material on the DVD.
At times, though, the film does seem like an outstanding short that is somewhat strained by the expansion to feature length. The movie is justifiably famous for the scenes in which Paulette and Michel go about their "games," but just as much time is given over to the rather tedious dispute between the Dolles and Gouards, who are caricatured rather broadly as greedy, malicious, and petty. Most of these scenes are played for satirical laughs, and the buffoonery gets a bit tedious, as does the illicit romance between the Dolles's daughter and the Gouards's son. Of course all of this boorish adult behavior is meant to drive home the ridiculousness of the rules which Paulette and Michel imperfectly understand and seek to follow, but the emphasis comes across as heavy-handed and unnecessary. The constantly hovering presence of war is a more than adequate reminder of human folly.
Criterion's full-frame transfer preserves the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and is characteristically sharp and rich. The original French mono soundtrack is provided with optional English subtitles, as well as the dubbed English version which was originally screened for subtitle-allergic American audiences at the time of the film's release. The dub is not bad as such things go, but the original is, of course, preferable. The sound throughout is clear and clean, and Narciso Yepes' plangent guitar music is lovely.
For a Criterion release, Forbidden Games is a bit light on extras. There is an interview with Clément from a 1963 episode of the TV show Cinepanorama, which consists mostly of slightly enigmatic answers to slightly enigmatic questions; the most interesting moment is when the interviewer asks the director if he feels that cinema is dying. Cinema dying, in 1963, in the middle of one of the most fertile periods in the history of the form? (Perhaps our interviewer is an anti-New Wave ideologue?) It just goes to show that the prophets of doom never sleep.
A 2001 interview with Brigitte Fossey is more substantial; she tells of her audition for the role, her friendship with Georges Poujouly, her admiration for Clément, and also shares the story of the false teeth and wig that the child stars wore for the second round of filming. She also offers her prescient analysis of the film, suggesting that it is, in fact, about the ways in which war turns children into "monsters." There is also a 1967 interview featuring both Clément and Fossey, in which the 20-year-old actress discusses her plans for the future and her desire to work with the director again.
Criterion also provides the original theatrical trailer, and a brief bookend sequence that was cut before the film's premiere. In the opening scene, Poujouly begins to read the story of the film to Fossey from a storybook (the story of "a little girl like you, and a little boy"). At the end, Fossey objects to the sad ending and Poujouly placates her. These scenes create distance for the audience and dilute the bleakness of the narrative, and it's for the best that they were cut.
Forbidden Games is a unique film, a occasionally awkward mixture of existential meditation, war movie, and satirical farce, a film about death-haunted children and their confused adaptations of adult behavior. The adults, too, know nothing and understand imperfectly, but pretend otherwise, and the tragedy of war is the result.
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Scales of Justice
• Collection of New and Archival Interviews With Director Rene Clement and Actress Brigitte Fossey
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