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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Forbidden Games

Director: René Clément
Country: France
Year: 1952

Background

René Clément was born in 1913, in Bordeaux, France. He first studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and eventually gravitated to film-making. In 1936, he directed his first film, a 20-minute Jacques Tati short (we’ll be watching Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday later in this series). Apart from this initial foray into fiction, Clément spent the remainder of the 30’s making documentaries in Africa and the Middle East. Finally, in 1945, he directed his first feature film, The Battle of the Rails, a story about the French Resistance.

In 1950, Clément won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for The Walls of Malapaga. He won the same award for a second time in 1952, for today’s film, Forbidden Games.

The story which forms the basis of Forbidden Games was originally written as a screenplay by François Boyer. Finding no takers for his creepy children-play-with-dead-things screenplay, Boyer re-worked the material as a novel, The Secret Game, which remained a flop in France but was an inexplicable best-seller in the U.S. Clément and his screenwriting partners Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost picked up the rights to The Secret Game and turned it back into a screenplay. The screenplay was intended as the middle section of an omnibus film produced by Robert Dorfmann. After Clément finished his part of the project, however, financing for the omnibus film fell through. Dorfmann, impressed by the film in its short form, encouraged Clément to flesh it out into a full-length film.

SPOILER ALERT: Forbidden Games has kind of a bummer ending. In fact, that’s one thing that elevates it above other kids-coping-with-loss films; it is not afraid to admit that things don’t always turn out well for children. Originally, Clément filmed a prologue and epilogue featuring the child leads sitting on a stump, reading the story from a book. When the story ends in bleak despair, Paulette weeps. Michel comforts her by proposing a happier alternate ending. Clément eventually removed those bookend scenes, and we now get to enjoy the film’s ending in all its nihilist glory.

Forbidden Games was not a success in France and was ignored at Cannes, but was a hit in the U.S. Leonard Maltin, voicing the prevailing critical view, has said that Forbidden Games “…is almost unquestionably the most compelling and intensely poignant drama featuring young children ever filmed.”

Clément continued to make films over the following years, but few received the critical acclaim or commercial success of Forbidden Games. Purple Noon was a success, based on the same novel as Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Is Paris Burning, with a script by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola and featuring a huge cast of international stars, was a particularly embarrassing failure, both critically and commercially.

René Clément retired in 1975, was honored with a lifetime achievement César Award in 1984, and died in 1996.

Synopsis

Our film opens on a large storybook, perhaps lying on a bed. R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is brought to mind, and I should probably use the word “counterpane” in here somewhere. A hand turns the pages of the book to display the titles, setting the tone for the semi-creepy fairy tale to follow. On the soundtrack, we hear a sweet and simple melody on an acoustic guitar, like something you would hear a strolling minstrel playing at your local Ren Faire.

The story takes place in June 1940. I know that, because it says so, right on the screen. People are fleeing along a country road on foot, in cars, on bicycles.

German planes roar overhead, dropping bombs. Five-year-old Paulette (in an absurdly short baby-doll dress which I continue to find irritating or troubling throughout the remainder of the film) travels with her parents and her adorable puppy, Jock. When the dirty Prussians return to strafe the unarmed civilians (bastards!), Paulette’s mother, father, and dog are killed.

A neighbor grabs the limp corpse of the dog out of Paulette’s arms. “Can’t you see this thing is dead?” she demands. “‘E’s passed on! This puppy is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PUPPY!!”

(I’m paraphrasing.)

Deceased or no, Paulette takes back her beloved puppy-corpse and wanders, dazed and alone, into the countryside. By a creek, she meets the eleven-year-old Michel.

Promising to give her an even better (and, presumably, breathing) dog, Michel takes Paulette to his home.

“Her father and mother were killed,” he explains to his parents. “Maybe we could keep her.” His parents are not keen on the idea, until Michel mentions casually that perhaps their next-door neighbors (the Gouards) could take her in. This will not do, because the Dollés (Michel’s family) and the Gouards have some kind of longstanding Hatfield-McCoy thing going on. Paulette is therefore unofficially adopted into the Dollé family, so that those damn Gouards won’t have another excuse to gloat. Harrumph!

Around the same time Paulette arrives in the Dollé household, Michel’s brother Georges sustains unspecified injuries in a freak accident with a bomb-crazed horse. Throughout the following scenes, he languishes in bed, moaning.

Michel takes ownership of Paulette as he might a stray cat; feeding her, comforting her during air raids, giving her his blanket. Paulette’s history is unknown, but she is clearly from a higher class of French society than the Dollés: “She’s so clean!” “She smells like perfume!” “She’s too snooty to drink our fly-befouled milk!”

Apparently, Paulette is also some sort of godless pagan; she does not know her Catechism, and is fuzzy on the significance of a cross. The Dollés do their best to turn her into a good Catholic.

Say, this would probably be a good place for an inflammatory joke about Catholicism!

The war is going badly. “There aren’t enough coffins,” remarks one of Michel’s older brothers. “They’re just throwing the bodies in holes in the ground, like dogs.” Paulette listens, wide-eyed.

Later, Paulette tearfully asks to go back to the road, so that she can find her mother and father. “They’re not there anymore,” Michel informs her; they are “in a hole.”

Paulette retrieves Jock’s stiffening corpse. A passing priest teaches her how to pray the Our Father. In an abandoned building, she digs a hole and buries Jock. She worries that Jock will be lonely unless they find another (dead) dog to keep him company. Michel has an idea: “We’ll make a little cemetery!” While Paulette recites a halting prayer, Michel retrieves a dead mole from an owl’s nest: The second tenant of their very own cemetery! Hooray! The children are excited now; what other animals can we bury?

“Cats!”
“And hedgehogs and lizards!”
“And horses and cows!”
“And rattlesnakes!”
“And lions!”
“And tigers!”
“And people!”

Uh oh.

“And we’ll plant crosses for all of them!” declares Michel, always pro-active. Paulette takes off her necklace and wraps it around the cross on Jock’s grave.

Michel gets to making crosses, and Paulette practices her Hail Mary’s. She stumbles over that “fruit of thy womb” part, though, and asks for clarification from her more knowledgeable friend.

“Michel, what’s a womb?”

“It’s around where Georges is wounded,” explains Michel, pounding away happily with a hammer. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Mr. Dollé, furious at the blasted cross-making racket, sends Michel to bed without his supper. That’ll teach you to be creative! Kids these days…

Later, Georges is spitting up blood. The entire family gathers around his bed to pray. Michel prays while hungrily eyeing the bread on the table (because he hasn’t had his supper, remember).

“…our Father, Mother of God, give me my daily bread! crap crap crap crap shit.” I assume that last bit is a French variation on the prayer, but perhaps a Catholic in our audience can confirm.

Georges dies, Michel reciting his prayer in earnest now, and even little Paulette joins in for the triumphant finish: “May the Good Lord receive him into paradise!”

“Is your brother dead?” she asks Michel. More to the point: “Will you dig a hole for him?”

“If only I had given him the laxative earlier!” wails Mrs. Dollé, in the traditional lament of bereaved mothers.

Father is fixing up the old hearse for Georges’ funeral procession. There are some nice crosses on top of the hearse, which would probably come off with a little effort, Michel notices.

Paulette, still in her ridiculous baby doll dress (and it IS ridiculous; she can’t sneeze without displaying her underwear), feeds the chicks. “We can get three nice crosses!” Michel tells her excitedly. “But there’s only my dog and the mole…” counters Paulette. Clearly, more corpses will have to be procured.

Gouard’s son Francis returns, apparently AWOL and hoping to knock (mud-encrusted) boots with Michel’s sister Berthe, introducing an entirely superfluous Romeo-and-Juliet subplot. Michel presents Paulette with some suspiciously dead chicks.

The old family hearse, now mysteriously cross-less, bears Georges’ body to the church. A friend arrives with a wreath, bearing the inscription “For My Female Cousin.”

“Sorry, it was the last one,” the friend apologizes.

During the funeral, Michel and Paulette count the staggering array of beautiful crosses in the church. “That one would be good for a bee!” says Paulette, all agog, pointing at the gold cross on the priest’s rosary.

Finally, Mr. Dollé notices that the hearse is missing its goddamn crosses, and interrogates Michel. “If they didn’t fall off, then someone took them,” he reasons. “Who would do such a thing?”

“Maybe the Gouards?” Michel offers, guiltily.

Francis Gouard tells his father that he intends to marry Berthe Dollé. Mr. Gouard calls Berthe a whore, and a manly bout of fisticuffs follows. Back at the graveside, Mr. Dollé tells the priest that the Gouards stole his crosses.

This means WAR!

Later, Michel confesses to the priest that he stole the crosses, and promises to return them. Michel’s sister Berthe also confesses something to the priest, but we don’t hear the details. Whatever it was, she did it “two times, actually.” “You’re putting the cart before the horse,” sighs the priest, clucking his tongue in disapproval. Berthe hopes that the priest will help to reconcile the Dollés and the Gouards so that she and Francis might get married.

While the priest is occupied with his sister’s various and sundry infractions, Michel attempts to steal the golden cross from the altar, but he falls and is caught in the act. “You didn’t even finish your penance before you started in on worse!” the priest shouts at the fleeing Michel.

Michel and Paulette make labels for the grave-crosses: “Jock” “chick” “mole” and then a cockroach passes, Michel kills it, and they add another.

Berthe and Francis lie in the hay, in (what I can only assume is) a post-coital daze. “Putting the cart before the horse – what does that even mean?” asks Francis. “What we were doing just now,” explains Berthe.

Michel and Paulette sneak out to the cemetery at night to steal the crosses, including Georges’. Rockets explode overhead while they use a wheelbarrow to cart the crosses to their makeshift cemetery.

The next Sunday, the family goes to the cemetery to visit Georges’ grave. Michel is understandably reluctant to join the family on this outing.

When they find Georges’ cross missing, Father goes berserk and, assuming that Mr. Gouard is to blame, destroys the cross on the grave of Gouard’s late wife (God rest her soul). At that inopportune moment, the Gouards arrive, and the rumble is ON! The brawling patriarchs fall into a grave and continue wrestling. The priest arrives and, seeing no other option, breaks the sanctity of the confessional by ratting out Michel. Everyone chases Michel, but he is small and fast and he eludes them easily.

That night, the family awaits Michel’s return, and wonders just what in Christ’s name was that boy thinking? Also, where in the hell did he hide all those damn crosses? Because unless we find them, we’re going to have to pay to replace them, and I tell you what, those things are pricey.

The police arrive, and everyone assumes that the Gouards have filed a complaint about the destruction of Mama Gouard’s cross. And, based solely on regular viewings of The People’s Court, I think they have a solid case.

Mr. Dollé tries to beat the location of the missing crosses out of Michel: “Fourteen crosses? 14,000 kicks in the pants!”

In a classic switcheroo, it turns out the police didn’t come about the crosses at all; they came to take Paulette to an orphanage, and everything is fine! Oh, wait. Orphanage? That’s not good.

Michel, desperate at the thought of losing his pet/playmate, offers a deal: “If I tell you where the crosses are, will you keep her?” Mr. Dollé agrees to these terms, and Michel tells him where the crosses are. Then Mr. Dollé turns Paulette over to the authorities.

What I learned from this film: Adults and members of the clergy cannot be trusted.

Back to the story:

“You promised!” shouts Michel. “You’ll never get them now!” He runs to the mill and tearfully demolishes the crosses, throwing the pieces in the river.

The police car drives past with Paulette in the back seat, no doubt displaying her panties to everyone. Michel takes Paulette’s necklace from Jock’s grave, and places it in the owl’s nest. “keep this for a hundred years,” he says, lost in grief.

At the orphanage, a nun with a gigantic winged hat ties a name tag around Paulette’s neck.

There are many, many lost children at the orphanage. As soon as the nun is distracted by another child, Paulette bolts, pushing her way through the crowd.

“Michel, Michel, Michel…” she cries.

Fin

What I Liked

The two child leads are fantastic – absolutely believable and un-self-conscious. These two characters are also written with an ear for the dialogue and the logic of children, and a sympathetic understanding of their behavior when adults are not present. The kids are sometimes infuriating and bratty and stupid…you know, just like real kids. But they are also sympathetic and confused and struggling to make sense of the events happening around them.

Here’s a quote from the Criterion essay by Peter Matthews, who says it much better than I:

“Yet the drama isn’t quite the traditional liberal indictment of militarism that one might expect. For once, the innocents aren’t turned into mere alibis for hand-wringing, editorializing, and moral blackmail on the part of well-meaning adults. As near as possible, Clément maintains the integrity of childhood—its aloofness, its impenetrability, its silence, which, beheld from the outside, can appear sinister.”

Yeah, exactly! In fact, that whole essay is excellent. If you watch Forbidden Games and find it compelling, I urge you to read Matthews’ essay here:

The opening scene of people fleeing along a country road, pursued by German airplanes, was genuinely scary, well-shot and well-constructed.

I also liked the milieu at the Dollé household. They are poor farmers, but not just caricatures (though there are some moments of somewhat broad comedy at their expense). The father is alternately kindly, wise, stupid, abusive, and warm; I believed in him as a genuine human character, conflicted but trying to do the right thing and sometimes failing.

I liked the simple acoustic guitar soundtrack by Narciso Yepes; a perfect fit for the imagery and tone of the film, and such a refreshing change from the usual symphonic score.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Although the members of the Dollé household generally avoided caricature, there were a few notable exceptions. Both of Michel’s brothers were written and portrayed as two-dimensional semi-retarded bumpkins, and there were other members of the household who didn’t register at all.

Forbidden Games was originally conceived as a short film, and that doesn’t surprise me; it felt padded with unnecessary subplots. The addition of the Romeo-and-Juliet elements in particular changed the tone of the film. I think it could have been much more powerful as a dreamy short film, retaining more of a poetic fairy-tale feel.

Should You See It?

Definitely! One of the cornerstones of French cinema, by one of the masters, and it is absolutely compelling and not precious or remote in the ways that can alienate a modern U.S. viewer.

fifi sez: check it out.

Next: The 400 Blows

4 Comments

  1. Now that’s entertainment! The story was dramatic, tragic, humorous, and heart-wrenching – everything a movie should be. The story immediately made me care about the two children, and that concern lasted throughout the entire movie, and after. It was also another wonderfully educational glimpse into the lives of people living long ago in a country, society and circumstances much different than mine.

    The opening sequence of F.G. conveys the unimaginable toll that war takes on innocent citizens. The fragility of life was a constant theme, from the war-plane strafing of Paulette’s parents and puppy, to the horse-related injury and subsequent death of one of Michel’s brothers, to Michel’s stabbing of the cockroach. While Paulette initially asked the question why shouldn’t there be an animal cemetery, Michel certainly took the idea and ran with it, partly for his own emotional and psychological health in trying to deal with the harsh realities of life, but possibly mostly because he was smitten with Paulette and wanted to make her happy.

    (While I have never before had any interest in writing a screenplay, I could see how a sequel to this movie would be a most intriguing project. What happened to Paulette? How would these two kids grow up and move through life? How scarred would they be? Would they always be searching for each other? What if they found each other again?)

    The touches of humor in F.G. were a welcome respite and were added with just the right tone. The comedy scene in the people cemetery was especially handled with delicacy. It could have easily been a crass moment, but somehow the movie-makers maintained the overall respectfulness of the dreadful situations with which the adult characters were also dealing, while lightening the mood just enough to enable me to keep watching.

    And gag!, yak!, and thank God! they did not use the alternate introduction and ending. I am almost sorry I watched them. It could have easily diminished my respect for the writers and director, but I am choosing to believe that the politics and business of the movie industry made them have to do it in order to get the movie made they way they wanted.

    Despite the disturbing images of the puppy before it died (and my thoughts about this movie having been made well before we ever started seeing the “no animals were harmed” disclaimers), I would rate this movie near the top of the list of what we have seen so far and would recommend it highly.

    Confession: Forbidden Games is the first movie on this list during which I’ve needed Kleenex.

    [After writing the above, then reading the fifi comments, I have to add:
    1. There’s a certain satisfaction in finding and using exactly the right word, even if it conveys a horrible action – in this review, “strafe/strafing.”
    2. The subplots are what made the movie more bearable to me. If they were removed, what would be left would be too hard to watch and recommend.
    3. Even with the moments of humor, I would not consider this a light comedy.]

  2. Yeah, in response to Jen’s comment at the top… despite the creepy subject matter, Forbidden Games manages to not really be very creepy at all. In fact, as Matt says, it’s more like a light comedy.

    I had forgotten that the owl would live 100 years; that explains why Michel told the owl to keep the necklace for 100 years at the end.

    What was the neighbors’ name? Gonads?

  3. “Forbidden Games.” Okay, just say the title and let that rattle around in your head a bit. “Forbidden Games.” I figured it would be something like the 1995 film rated “R” for sexuality and a scene of violence. You know…something, uh, “Forbidden” and, uh, “Games” like. Boy, how different can two films be?

    Okay, I’ve got to hand it to the French. Only they could make a film about an orphan girl, during WWII, warring families, dead family members, oppressive church and dead animals into a comedy…but golly, that’s what they’ve done.

    Our story starts with refugees going through the French countryside escaping Paris after the Germans have taken it over. Amongst these refugees is a beautiful blond girl, Paulette. She’s all of, maybe, 5 years of age. When the caravan of refugees is attacked not once, but twice by German planes – Paulette goes after her puppy dog putting both her family and her at great risk. Within moments her parents have been shot and her dog has been killed. Sounds like a comedy…right?

    Confused at her new orphan status and still clinging to her dead dog, she gets in another vehicle only to have the older woman throw the dead dog over the side of a bridge into the water.

    When another attack happens, Paulette goes in search of her dead dog – now floating down the river.

    After finding the dog, she realizes she is not only far from the caravan but has encountered a boy named Michel. He’s a young scrapper cut from the cloth of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. He promises her a new dog and they had back to their house.

    Seems Michel’s family (Dolle) , a poor group of farmers lives next door to another family (Gorands?) – another poor group of farmers. These two families do NOT like each other. Each one has a dead-beat son. One who is a deserter from the war, the other classified as 4F. The Dolle’s have ANOTHER son who gets seriously injured while trying to corral an out of control horse and is soon laid up in bed. I know, I know, you’re still waiting for the laughs.

    The Dolles, though poor, take in sweet little Paulette and she and Michel quickly become friends. When told that the dead on the side of the road have been buried in shallow graves, Paulette’s concern for her dead dog challenges her to go bury her dog.

    The next day Paulette and Michel go and bury her dog in an abandoned mill overlooked by an owl that will “live to 100.”

    Michel makes a cross for the dog but then Paulette decides she wants to bury more dead animals and make crosses for them. But they can’t be plain crosses – they have to be GOOD crosses, pretty crosses. Not just sticks.

    What follows then, is the stealing of crosses and the collection of dead animals. When the injured son dies the father builds a funeral carriage to carry the body. He nails crosses to the top of the carriage but Michel steals them.

    At the funeral the father discovers the missing crosses and assumes that the Goruad (?) family has stolen them and, of course, Michel lies to the father – creating more conflict.

    Besides the collecting of dead animals and the stealing of crosses, the deserter son has returned to continue his love-making with the Dolle’s eldest daughter.

    As confusion begins to rise between the families, eventually there is a boiling point where both fathers have it out in the cemetery ending up beating the crap out of each other in a shallow grave.

    To finish off their cemetery, Paulette and Michel steal every cross they can find and create a beautiful cemetery in the mill. For worms, for birds, for her dog. But all these stolen crosses means Michel is royally in hot water and must be caught – but he runs away to the barn to sleep. Paulette for all her spunkiness, never gives in and never gives up where the crosses are – even after Michel gets the crap beat out of him by the old man.

    When the police show up, the Dolles are certain that it is due to the crosses. Instead, they are there to collect Paulette and put her in an orphanage. Michel tells where the crosses are – if his father will promise not to send Paulette away. Though is father promises (kind of), Paulette is sent away anyway and Michel rips the holy hell out of the cemetery they had built.

    As for the ending? It is one of the most brutal, heartbreaking scenes I have seen in a long, long time.

    Fin!

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Though my review really didn’t mention the comedy in this film, the film is hilarious in a number of scenes. I mean, seriously, funny. Whether it be the subject matter, the warring families, the side comments, etc. For instance, when the eldest daughter is in confession she confesses that her and the eldest Gorand (?) boy have had sex, just two times. She says they will be married but the priest says: “Well, you’ve put the cart before the horse.” Later in the film after another tryst in the hay, the eldest boy says: “What does he mean, put the cart before the horse?” Her response is: “What we just did.”

    So, trust me, yes – very funny. Funnier, certainly, than I expected.

    Acting was all around great. Especially Paulette and Michel. Yes, of course, there’s always the “cutesy” factor you’re going to get with kids and Paulette never seems to get as much as a smudge on her face – but they were great. And, again, that final scene. Wow. The little girl playing Paulette nails it.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    I wanted more. One of the things I do when I get a film from Netflix is that I will check to see how long it is. What am I in for in terms of time commitment? The slip said 1 hour and 42 minutes. The film is, actually, 85 minutes. So as I watched I kept waiting for more and then…it…ends…brutally so. I wanted more. I wanted to see what happens next. I want a sequel ten years later!

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Wonderful film, on all fronts. Truly a special movie.

  4. This is the creepiest looking and sounding movie I have ever heard of! Ewwwwww!
    Wonderful commentary, now *I* don’t have to watch it!
    Hugs from the West Side-
    Jen

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