The 1952 film Jeux interdits, directed by René Clément, opens with a credit sequence presented on the pages of what appears to be a children’s storybook. However, in spite of its ostensible innocence, there’s something ever-so-slightly unsettling about it. Perhaps it’s the music, a kind of melancholy lullaby, or perhaps it’s the title, which translates as Forbidden Games in English. At any rate, once the film itself begins, it immediately becomes clear that this is no fairy tale. An ominous date appears on the screen: June 1940.
Paris is being taken over by the Germans, and the city’s terrified residents are fleeing in droves, dodging bombs and bullets from enemy warplanes as they go. Among them are Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), a girl of about five, and her parents, as well as her dog, Jock. When Jock wriggles out of Paulette’s arms and dashes down the road, she runs after him, unmindful of the explosions and the gunfire coming from overhead. Her parents, in turn, run after her, but although they manage to catch up with her and dive to the ground for safety, both of them are killed — shot in the back. Paulette herself is unharmed. She doesn’t quite seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, and after stroking her mother’s face, she picks up the fatally wounded Jock and tries to comfort him. (Word of warning: Whether or not Jock’s death throes are real, they do look convincing.) As an onrush of people crosses the bridge where Paulette is standing, a man tries to help by putting her on his wagon, much to the displeasure of his other passenger, an older woman. “Get rid of that thing,” the woman says, referring to Jock. “Can’t you see that it’s dead?” Much to Paulette’s dismay, she grabs the dog’s body and hurls it into the river below. The little girl slips away and retrieves her late pet, then wanders off alone.
She soon encounters Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly), a farmer’s son of eleven or twelve who’s chasing a runaway cow. After Paulette explains that Jock and her parents are all dead, Michel suggests that she leave Jock behind and come home with him, promising her a new dog — an offer that immediately cheers her up. At first, Michel’s father (Lucien Hubert) isn’t interested in taking Paulette in — the household is already in disarray because one of his older sons, Georges (Jacques Marin), has just been injured by a horse — so Michel aims for his Achilles’ heel: “All right. She’ll go to the Gouards.” The Gouards are the Dollés’ neighbors, and the two families hate each other. How and when this feud began isn’t clear, though Gouard (André Wasley) once received a medal for rescuing Dollé’s drowning grandmother; Dollé contends that she was dead by the time Gouard pulled her out of the water. At any rate, their animosity shows no signs of abating. “Shame on you,” Dollé responds to Michel. “So they can claim another medal?” Then he looks at Paulette and softens a bit. “Come on. Tell us all about it.”
That evening, Paulette hears Michel’s brother Raymond (Marcel Mérovée, credited as Pierre Mérovée) remark that there weren’t enough coffins for the seventeen people who were killed on the bridge that day, Paulette’s parents among them: “They dig a hole and in they go, like dogs.” This traumatic imagery sticks with her, and she connects it with Jock, whom she left lying on the ground by the river. She goes back for his body the next day and, with Michel’s help, buries it in the Dollés’ barn. “I’ve got an idea. We’ll make a nice little cemetery,” he says, but she doesn’t understand. He explains that a cemetery is where the dead are all put together “so they won’t be sad.” “Then my dog will be sad if he’s all alone,” she says. This gives them an idea: Collect more dead animals and create a real cemetery, complete with crosses. Paulette takes this project more seriously than Michel, who only wants to make her happy, but it soon becomes a kind of all-consuming game to both of them — one with serious consequences.
Forbidden Games takes a different approach to World War II-era France than many films do. Because it’s set so early in the war, it’s not a tale of heroic Resistance fighters or contemptible collaborators, nor does it deal with the Holocaust; in fact, it doesn’t even show any German soldiers, though it does show their planes. Instead, it focuses on people leading their ordinary lives as best they can. “You’d never think there was a war going on here,” a visiting relative comments to Dollé. It’s not entirely true — the nearby bridge is a target for bombs, and enemy warplanes sometimes swoop down over the family’s fields — but they certainly don’t feel its effects the way the Parisians and some other French citizens do. As soon as Paulette enters the Dollés’ house, Michel’s siblings are eager to hear about her experiences, asking questions like “You’ll tell us about the war?” and “You saw the bombs?” Even Michel himself, who’s more sensitive to Paulette’s feelings, gets excited when a rocket illuminates the night sky, and he urges her to look out the window. “I’m scared. We better get on the floor,” she replies, hiding under her blanket. In another scene, Michel stabs a cockroach with his pen, making a noise like a plane dropping a bomb. “Don’t kill them!” Paulette cries. Michel argues, “It wasn’t me. It was a bomb. Are you crazy?” but Paulette only repeats, “Don’t kill them!” Little as she comprehends the whole notion of war, she knows enough to be distressed rather than thrilled by it.
In light of France’s national crisis, the petty feud between the Dollés and the Gouards seems even sillier than it would in peacetime, but instead of realizing that, they turn the war into more fuel for their personal fire. The Dollés — some of them, anyway — resent the fact that Gouard’s son, Francis (Amédée), was decorated for his military service and got his picture in the newspaper, and later on, Francis and Raymond accuse each other of being deserters. “The army turned me down. I have albuminuria,” Raymond says, but his own sister Berthe (Laurence Badie) is unimpressed. “At least he’s doing his part,” she says when Raymond criticizes Francis. Intrafamilial conflicts are as common as interfamilial ones in Forbidden Games. As the youngest Dollé, Michel is often pushed around by his siblings and his father, sometimes in a physical way, though he’s clever enough to hold his own against them in most cases. (Another word of warning: Near the end, there’s a rather violent scene between Michel and his father that might make for difficult viewing.) They’re not a totally dysfunctional family, but they’re also not a family united and ennobled by wartime struggles.
For the Gouards, the war itself becomes a source of disharmony. Francis really is a deserter: “There are no more leaders, no more English, no more nothing. So I said to myself, ‘No point marching forever,'” he explains to his family upon his return, which he announces with a clumsy trumpet fanfare. Gouard père disapproves. “In ’18 we didn’t need to run,” he says. “If you’d had Messerschmitts on your tail, you’d have run,” Francis replies. Gouard has good reason to criticize, yet Francis seems to be right in suggesting that his father is out of touch with the realities of modern warfare, especially when he advocates horses over half-tracks. This serves as another indication of the Dollés’ and Gouards’ relative isolation.
However, the fleeing Parisians seen at the beginning of the film, people who do have firsthand experience of the war, are not united and ennobled by it either. Terror-stricken, they act like proverbial animals. (Many animals are seen throughout the film, but none of them are savage as the humans sometimes are.) An every-man-for-himself, save-your-own-skin mentality is alarmingly prevalent. If people do work together, it’s for the sake of self-preservation, as seen when Paulette’s family’s car stalls and several men from the cars behind them rush up and push it out of the way, wrecking it in the process. Even the well-meaning man who gives Paulette a ride on his wagon is too busy with his own problems to notice or care when she runs off to retrieve Jock’s body, and nobody else notices or cares either.
The frequent pettiness and selfishness of the adults in Forbidden Games stands in stark contrast to Paulette and Michel’s fast friendship. There’s a lovely purity to their relationship, tied up though it is with death and, eventually, theft. Michel, being older, understands life a bit better than Paulette, but he’s still young enough to take pleasure in their animal cemetery, especially if he can make Paulette happy by working on it. She, meanwhile, is completely attached to him and obsessed with this morbid little project. To the average five-year-old, the world is confusing enough under normal circumstances, so it’s no surprise that Paulette — abruptly orphaned by a war she can’t possibly comprehend — tries to make sense of death by turning it into a game. Indeed, she quickly becomes less interested in death itself than in finding appropriate crosses for each would-be denizen of the cemetery: a small one for a bee, a tall one for a giraffe. She can’t deal directly with the subject, and in that, she isn’t all that different from Michel’s father and brothers, who treat death as a joke. When Raymond mentions the shortage of coffins for the bombing victims, Dollé tells Georges, “Hear that? This is no time to die. You don’t even get a box.” In a subsequent scene, Georges — half-laughing, half-pained — says, “I don’t need a doctor. I need an undertaker.” “Don’t worry,” Raymond replies cheerfully. “We can use the old hearse if we fix it up a bit.” What sets Paulette apart from them is her sincerity. She even takes the family’s religion more seriously than they do. They’re shocked that she doesn’t know what a crucifix is, but when they need someone to say a prayer in a moment of crisis, they have to rely on Michel, who’s still young enough for catechism classes. Paulette, in contrast, conscientiously crosses herself and says the only prayer she knows while burying Jock. It doesn’t have any real meaning to her, but if it’s the proper way to deal with death, she’ll do it.
According to Brigitte Fossey, speaking in a 2001 interview included on the Criterion DVD of the film, René Clément initially wanted a girl between ages nine and eleven to play Paulette, but because the five-year-old Fossey was largely oblivious to what was going on at the audition, she wasn’t affected by nerves like the older girls, and Clément chose her for the role. It was a wise decision; Paulette’s innocence would be less credible in a child of ten, and the age gap between Paulette and Michel makes their friendship and their differing views of the world much more interesting. Also, in another interview on the Criterion DVD, this one from a 1967 episode of the French television program Magazine de la jeune fille, Fossey noted that she “was completely unaware of the tragedy and the seriousness of the subject” while shooting the movie, which gives her performance an extra layer of authenticity.
To soften a harsh tale, Clément shot opening and closing scenes in which Michel is reading the story to Paulette from a book. More accurately, a boy played by Georges Poujouly is reading the book to a girl played by Fossey; Michel and Paulette are just fictional characters to them, although the girl doesn’t understand that. “Don’t cry. It’s just a story. It’s not real,” the boy says in the closing scene. “Stories are real too!” she insists, so he invents a happy ending and she calms down. Clément didn’t end up using this framing device — probably another wise decision, as it comes across as a bit of a cop-out. Still, its very existence is an interesting commentary on the way people of all ages — even grown-up filmmakers — try to avoid confronting death, war and other serious subjects head-on.
Crucial though its setting is, Forbidden Games is much more than a story about France in June of 1940. It’s about death, war, childhood, family, friendship, human nature, innocence, loss and the ways both children and adults try to make sense of the world. “At that age they don’t understand,” Michel’s mother (Suzanne Courtal) says of Paulette shortly after the little girl arrives at the Dollés’ house. She may be right, but even if Paulette wanted to cling to her naivete, it would be too late. Understanding must come, sooner for her than for many children, and no game can keep it away forever.
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