Forbidden Games: Generous Brutality, by Dayne Linford
Rene Clément’s 1952 classic Forbidden Games wastes no time in setting its terms as an uncompromising exploration of the complications of innocence in a time of war. Paulette (Bridget Fossey) accompanies her parents as they flee Paris before the Nazi onslaught, just one more in the train of refugees clogging the roads. Their car dies, blocking the road, and, as Paulette’s father worries over the engine, men in the line behind them take hold of the vehicle and, lifting, pushing and pulling it, dump it off the road and down into a ditch, showing no sympathy, patience, or consideration. Desperate, the family takes what luggage they can, Paulette rescuing her puppy from the wreckage, and begin to walk, attempting to cross a bridge as Nazi planes, emblazoned overhead with the Iron Cross, strafe and attempt to bomb it. As they huddle before it, Paulette’s dog escapes her hold, running across the bridge, and she dashes after it, her mother and father rushing after her. They reach her as she reaches the dog and another plane swoops low, tackling her to the ground and holding still as a trail of bullets makes its way across the bridge, suddenly gouging a new hole in each parent’s back. The plane passes. As Paulette lifts her head and realization dawns, her puppy twitches beneath her, its neck broken in the fall. This, an elegant and cruel portrayal of the fatal consequences of Paulette’s innocence, is how Forbidden Games opens.
I suppose it’s surprising that a film opening with a scene of such brutality and relentlessness should actually become throughout more of a class farce replete with bracing tenderness. The corpse of her dog having been tossed over the bridge into the river, Paulette follows its gentle course downriver, arriving at two farms straddling the stream. The youngest boy of one family, the Dolle’s, finds her cradling the puppy and coaxes her to leave it behind and help him with his chores. Over time, his family comes to accept Paulette amongst themselves, providing a stability much needed after such trauma.
However, though their lives continue through seasonal variations as before, the specter of war hangs over the family, visiting its arbitrary destruction upon them as it did upon Paulette. Arriving seconds after Paulette, a tethered warhorse, driven mad by the destruction and death heard just past its blinders, kicks the Dolle’s oldest son, Georges (Jacques Marin), as he moves to comfort it. He lays in bed, declining, as the family tries to see to him. Paulette, meanwhile, looks to bury her dog, with Michel (Georges Poujouly), the young boy who found her, offering to help. They find an old, abandoned mill, and, in this quiet, childish sanctuary, decide to bury the dog and further make a cemetery for all the animals regularly found dead on the farm. However, Paulette demands a beautiful cemetery for the animals, setting exacting standards Michel is unable to satisfy. As they become closer and Michel’s affection for her develops, Georges dies. The family prepares his hearse, and Michel, determined to provide Paulette with beautiful crosses to mark the graves, steals those adorning the family hearse. The Dolle patriarch (Lucien Hubert), nursing a long-standing feud, is convinced his neighbor stole the crosses, setting off a conflict that is only exacerbated as Paulette and Michel, looking to provide a headstone for dozens of animals, begin robbing graves of their crosses.
Clearly, Forbidden Games occupies a strange crossroads tonally, between war films, European class comedies like Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and the childlike sensibility of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Michel and Paulette develop an incredible, tender relationship, as each struggles to make sense of an increasingly adult, threatening world, where innocuous glances and reactions are treated as evidence of evil, and absurd prejudices become suddenly violent. Meanwhile, their fumbling attempts to create beauty and peace only exacerbate the suspicions and prejudices of the adults in their world, equally at the mercy of something far beyond them and completely unnegotiable. So, they too attempt to make sense, by casting aspersions, throwing accusations, and physically attacking each other for imagined slights and absurd conspiracy theories. Forbidden Games never spares its characters from their flaws, their small-time thinking, but it also acknowledges how untenable their situation is, living on the edge of a toppled France, during the instatement of the Vichy government. There is no negotiating with their circumstance, either economically or historically, and it’s more comfortable to blame it on your neighbor. Even so, particularly as they care for Paulette, the Dolle’s show themselves to be tender and loving, capable of great sympathy and love. They operate as a unit, but as events continue, their family begins to split at the seams and their inability to perceive much beyond their land and river shows them eclipsed by even the circumstances they’ve come to understand, let alone those beyond their knowledge or comprehension.
Clement utilizes a fascinating strain of blasphemy throughout the film, especially in regards to the proper services for the animals gathered by Paulette and Michel throughout the farm to be buried. Paulette, in particular, apparently raised without religion, has, with Michel’s help, cobbled together a form of defining faith in the name of providing a cemetery to keep her dog, as she says, from feeling lonely. The trauma of her loss is so apparent in every frame of the film, the attempt of a child to negotiate her situation and feelings rendered powerfully in Fossey’s performance and Clément’s sensitivity in handling her. This religious expression, almost a mockery of actual ritual, becomes for them a childish way of maintaining some kind of control of something quickly devolving into complete chaos. Catholic imagery throughout is topsy-turvy, starting with the Iron Cross on the undersides of the Nazi planes, surely the most powerful and indelible cross Paulette’s observed in her childhood. And, though Michel knows his prayers well and faithfully attends confession, he also bends his faith, for Paulette, in an attempt to make sense of what is insensible, still so even when the paradigm is shifted only to the appropriate care for Paulette’s animals. Death is all around Paulette and Michel, violently torn from innocuousness into a devastating tactility. Their cemetery is the attempt to understand, which attempt, tellingly, only further pushes their family to the edge of farce, before collapsing completely into senselessness.
Forbidden Games is a truly stunning work, filled with a gentle humor that suddenly catches in your throat, and an insightful, penetrating gaze that is, nonetheless, generous. It’s that generosity that makes the pettiness and callousness of the characters all the more bracing, but also renders their tenderness and kindness all the more affecting. An incredible portrait of the bulk, rarely portrayed, of French society in response to the single most important event in modern history, Forbidden Games narrows its focus to its most powerful and insightful members, the children. Paulette and Michel’s efforts mirror the audience’s own, a struggle to derive meaning and come away whole. A struggle that is, ultimately, futile.