It’s June 1940, and streams of refugees are flooding into the French countryside to escape the blitzkrieg of Paris. As the Luftwaffe bombers appear in the sky, the frightened refugees fall to the ground, except for a lovely little girl, Paulette, who runs over a bridge in pursuit of her dog, Jock. Terrified, her parents race to catch her, and the little family quickly lies down on the roadway. Instantly, strafing fire strikes both parents. When the five-year-old lifts her head, she stares into the face of her dead mother. Traumatized, she touches her mother’s face and then her own. Suddenly an orphan, she rises up, still clutching her wounded and pathetically twitching dog, to face the further consequences of war. This is the powerful beginning of Rene Clement’s French masterpiece Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952), which has just been released on DVD in a pristine remaster by the Criterion Collection.
When the German planes are gone, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) is still blocking the roadway, so a man picks her up and puts her on his cart. His uncharitable wife has no interest in the girl, and she callously takes the dead pet and tosses it into the stream below. Paulette, now fixated on her dog, decides to pursue the floating corpse. Eventually, she retrieves Jock from the stream and wanders aimlessly into the French countryside where she meets Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly), a peasant boy about ten years old, who’s delighted to have such a fascinating new playmate. When the Dolle family decides to take the orphan into their home, they’re initially interested in her fancy dress, her cleanliness, and her ignorance about the Catholic Faith, but soon begin to treat her with a benign neglect and leave her to the care of Michel. The enchanted young country boy resolves to satisfy his new friend’s every wish, which soon entails burying her dog and creating a special cemetery in an abandoned mill so that Jock won’t be lonely. The film delineates the acceleration of the children’s morbid obsessions as Paulette demands more animals to bury and more elaborate rituals, and Michel does his best to satisfy her needs.
When the film first appeared in France in 1952, it was poorly received. Greeted with headlines like “Forbidden Games Should Be Forbidden,” the film was actually censured from exhibition at Cannes that year. Some French viewers felt that the film was in bad taste simply because it was too close to the recent tragedies of the war. Others were offended by the rather buffoonish portrayals of the two peasant families, the Dolles and their hated neighbors the Gouards. Some Catholics considered the film blasphemous, and others were uneasy about its depiction of the darker side of childhood. Yet despite the criticisms, Forbidden Games was a tremendous success outside of France, winning numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at Venice, the Best Foreign Picture Award from the New York Film Critics, and a special Oscar.
It’s understandable that some viewers in France were not ready for such an unsettling film about the recent war, and it’s also true that Clement portrays the peasants as rubes, often to add humor and to further isolate the two main characters. On the other hand, while the children bastardize certain Catholic rituals to satiate their obsessions, there’s nothing intentionally disrespectful about Paulette’s desires. With Michel’s help, she is trying to give a deeper religious significance to the death and war that surround her. Although the three Catholic religious portrayed in the film (two priests and a nun) are drawn with a realistic respect and sympathy, the other adults in Forbidden Games have become complacent about their Catholicism, even about the Mass and the Eucharist. As British film critic Peter Matthews observes in a new essay that is included with the Criterion DVD, the actions of the children are an attempt to restore to both death and its funeral rituals “a portion of its original sacramental awe and gravity.”
In doing so, of course, the children go too far. Michel removes the crosses from the family hearse, kills several chicks, and steals 15 crosses from the parish graveyard. But the morbidity and darkness of the children are hardly “anti-religious,” serving rather as a filmic expression of the Catholic doctrine of original sin. Although it might make some viewers uneasy, there’s a definite darkness within the beautiful and seemingly innocent Paulette, and nothing will stand in the way of her bizarre attempt to grieve the loss of her parents.
All of these problems lead back to the obvious question about the culpability of the adults. Clement was never evasive about this aspect of his narrative, and the original French trailer for the film blatantly asks, “Aren’t grown-ups responsible for the example they set?” The two peasant families, although silly and spiteful, are not devoid of virtue, yet they seem impervious to their responsibilities to the children. When they discover that Paulette doesn’t know the meaning of the crucifix, they’re all astonished, and the oldest daughter points out that the little girl should be baptized. Nothing is done. The entire burden falls on young Michel who attempts to teach Paulette the few prayers he’s learned by rote, but it’s clearly not enough, and most of the religious concepts that the children consider are inevitably misinterpreted.
Despite its seductive charms and poetic lyricism, Forbidden Games is clearly headed for a heartbreaking ending. Behind its deceptive simplicity, the film is complex, always resisting simple clichés. It’s not just a film about childhood “innocence”; and it’s not, as Matthews affirms, simply another “anti-war” film; and it’s definitely not an “anti-Catholic” film—as critic Glenn Erickson points out, the film “isn’t interested in criticizing the institution of the Church.” Forbidden Games is instead a rather difficult film about, among other things, the serious obligations of Catholic parents. Leonard Maltin once called it “unquestion ably the most compelling and intensely poignant drama featuring young children ever written,” and even the often-acerbic Pauline Kael has admitted, “Forbidden Games is one of that small body of film experiences that does not leave you quite the same.”
Fortunately, lovers of film and cinema history have the remarkable efforts of the Criterion Collection to thank for the exquisite repackaging of such important works as Clement’s Forbidden Games. Founded in 1984 with the goal of producing the best possible versions of classic films, the collection now has more than 300 international offerings, including some of the most revered in cinema history. In preparation for its release of Forbidden Games, Criterion struck a new 35-millimeter print from the restored original negative and digitally removed thousands of scratches and other imperfections. Similarly, the soundtrack (which includes the famous and haunting Forbidden Games guitar theme by Narciso Yepes) was remastered to eliminate pops and hisses.
The Criterion list is now so extensive—and constantly expanding—that it’s hard to know where to begin. Fortunately, it already covers several titles from the Vatican’s 1995 list of cinematic masterpieces: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1938); Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).