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FORBIDDEN GAMES

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Lucien Hubert, André Wasley
Director: René Clément
Audio: French monaural, English-dubbed
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interviews, alternate opening and closing sequences, trailer, essay
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: December 6, 2005

"We'll plant crosses for all of them."

Film ****

European cinema, following the end of the Second World War, seemed possessed of a morbid fascination with this unfortunate chapter in human history.  French director René Clément, a former documentary filmmaker, was particularly keen on the World War II milieu, and many of his best films consequently were set during this period.  Clément's film career initially began in the 1930's with short documentaries, from which he eventually graduated into feature films following the war and mentorships under such directors as Jacques Tati and Jean Cocteau.  Clément would become a respected member of the intermediate generation of French directors who prospered between the poetic realism of pre-WWII French cinema and the revolution of the Nouvelle Vague in the late 1950's. 

Clément's films generally reflect his documentary sensibilities, with their authenticity of detail and choice of stark subject matters.  One of Clément's most memorable films is Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952), based on the novel Les Jeux Inconnus by François Boyer.  Originally shot as a short film, it was later expanded into a feature film after Clément's mentor Jacques Tati saw the short film and recognized its true potential.  Forbidden Games went on to win the Grand Prize at the 1952 Venice Festival and was recognized as Best Foreign-Language Film at the American Academy Awards.

Yet much like the poorly-titled Curse of the Cat People, Forbidden Games is neither a horror film nor a thriller.  Instead, like the Val Lewton classic, Clément's film is a poignant and evocative tale about a harsh world as viewed through the innocent eyes of children.  In this case, the film conveys the imaginative or sublimating behaviors by which the children respond to the anguish of a stressed world in disarray.

The performances by stars Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly are honest and magical, conveying the purity of children's natural behavior.  Like Victoire Thivisol in Jacques Doillon's Ponette or Jean-Pierre Léaud's in François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups, Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly disarm viewers with their sincerity such that we may forget that these children are performers in a film, not real children captured on documentary footage.

That being said, Forbidden Games opens with a rather terrifying air raid.  The invasion of France by Nazi Germany is at hand, and as the German Luftwaffe soars supreme in the skies above, panicked French civilians scramble to cross a bridge into the countryside without attracting the attention of the deadly German aviators.  Among the refugees fleeing Paris are five-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her family.  Sadly, as German bullets rain down from above, Paulette's world is torn asunder when her parents and pet dog are killed before her eyes.

Orphaned in the midst of the erupting chaos, the wandering Paulette is befriended by a ten-year old peasant boy, Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly).  Although he is a stranger, his presence offers the lonely and frightened Paulette a supportive friend to whom she clings tightly.  Initially, Michel bemusedly regards Paulette as a new pet that has followed him home, but soon they become close friends and Paulette quickly accepts him as a protective, older brother.  Michel's family likewise takes pity upon the poor little girl and welcomes her openly into their humble country home. 

As the echoes of war draw ever closer, aerial fire exploding in the night amidst the sounds of distant thunder, Paulette and Michel retreat ever further into their private, sheltering world.  Far from the anarchy of a society close to collapse, the two children begin to deal with the inevitable issues of death, increasingly prevalent in the countryside around them.

The children may have little sway over the deaths of the adults before them, but they can express their own sorrow or personal regrets through the smaller creatures of the world.  Paulette recovers her dead little dog and, in burying it, begins to build a hidden cemetery for animals.  The children begin to collect a myriad assortment of creatures, from chicks to worms to insects, burying the dead and erecting makeshift crosses over the tiny graves.  Eventually, the entire world of these children is fixated upon ensuring that even the smallest creatures need not be alone in eternal sleep.  Paulette's new hobby, in a sense, reflects her own manner of dealing with the reality of her parents' passing.  She does not view it as a macabre obsession but rather as a means through which to grasp the illusory concept of death.

Animal symbolism recurs constantly through the film.  There is the suggestion that Paulette's dead parents have been buried "like dogs," in a large unmarked pit with other victims of the air raid.  Paulette is fascinated by the idea of owning a new dog (to replace her former little pet); similarly, Michel stumbles across Paulette seemingly as an abandoned stray, and in bringing her home, wants to keep her.  Yet in their own naïve ways, both children display a nurturing quality that is mocked by or absent in the adults in their world.

Indeed, the adults in this film are frequently cruel or prone to premature and frequently erroneous judgment.  In one horrifying early scene, a woman crudely plucks Paulette's dying dog from her arms and flings it into the running waters of a stream.  Her rationale - the animal merely represents an unwanted burden to the fleeing refugees.  If war be the bane of polite society, then the "war horse" that cripples Michel's brother, who subsequently lies in bed in helpless convalescence, represents the unjust irrationality that accompanies all acts of impulsivity and anger.  War is madness, and madness, war.

Has this violence then made us insensitive or indifferent to the suffering of fellow men?  The implication in Forbidden Games is that conflict makes animals and monsters of all of us, children included.  Whether Forbidden Games is viewed as a parable about the tragedies of war or whether it is viewed as a film of how children approach and interpret loss, there is no doubt that this is truly an exceptional film and one not easily forgotten.

To what, then, does the title of this film refer?  Are the "forbidden games" a critique of the cruel antics of societies at odds, inflicting pain and suffering when none need exist?  Are they a reference to the strange calmness by which the children erect their clandestine and ultimately grotesque cemetery?  Perhaps, this film encompasses both interpretations.

Video ***

Forbidden Games was restored in collaboration with Les archives du film du centre national de la cinématographie and the Ministere de la culture.  The film is presented in a new, high-definition digital transfer in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The picture quality is generally clear and sharp with decent contrast levels, although some minor scratch marks are noticeable during darker scenes.  There is middling variation in the emulsion density, too.  Stock footage is used for the air raid scenes, and these shots are understandably of a grainier and poorer visual quality than other scenes in the film.  Clément's documentary origins can be seen particularly in the film's opening sequence, which uses this stock war footage mingled with original photography.

Audio ***

The film can be heard either in its original French or via a new English dub.  The French track should really be the preferred option, but to each his own.

Dialogue is always clearly audible, and Narciso Yepes provides a pensive classical guitar score that adds a haunting quality to the bittersweet ambiance of the film.

Features ** ½

There are several interviews with René Clément and Brigitte Fossey.  Clément appears in an October 1963 interview excerpt (9 min.) from the French television program Cinépanorama.  He describes the difficult situations under which the film was made but also the ultimately gratifying public response to it.  In a Brigitte Fossey 2001 solo interview (16 min.), the former child actress recalls her amusing audition, Clément's relationship with his actors, and scenes from the film.  Fossey even draws an intriguing analogy between Lady Macbeth and the character of Paulette!

Both Clément and Fossey appear in the final interview (5 min.), a December 1967 spot for the French television program Magazine de la jeune fille.  They reminisce about the making of the film, how Clément was able to draw such an exceptional performance from his very young star, and how that experience has influenced Fossey's subsequent career.  Film clips shown in this interview should be compared with their corresponding scenes in the restoration to better appreciate how superbly the film has been restored.

On an interesting note, alternate opening and closing sequences (7 min.) are included on this disc.  While they were likely never publicly exhibited, these sequences offer a storybook opening and closing, placing the events in the film at a safer emotional distance and generally providing the film with a more optimistic ending.  Ultimately, Forbidden Games works better without these sequences, but their inclusion here is a boon for completists.

Lastly, there is a theatrical trailer on the disc and a new essay by film scholar Peter Matthews.

Summary:

Widely considered René Clément's masterpiece, Forbidden Games is a bittersweet yet wondrous window into the ever-imaginative world of children, even as the adult world about them is crumbling.

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