March 2, 2006
Francois Boyer wrote a screenplay called Forbidden Games but was unable to sell it because of the frank way it dealt with death during the German blitz on France in World War II. So, he rewrote it as a novel and got it published in 1947 under the title, The Secret Game. It sold poorly in France but did well in the United States. This prompted French filmmaker Rene Clement and screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost to adapt it back into a screenplay. The original intention was to make it into a short film for a three-part omnibus. When financing fell through Clement was persuaded to expand it into feature length and the result was the controversial yet highly acclaimed in Forbidden Games (1952).
The opening credits are displayed on the pages of a book as if to suggest that what we are about to see is some kind of mythic tale. However, this is misleading considering what we are about to see. It is July 1940 and the Germans are bombing France. A convoy of people on the run from Paris and they are being pursued by enemy planes through the countryside. The planes are bombing and strafing these poor people at will. One car breaks down and others push it off the road in haste, scurrying to escape another deadly strafing run.
A little girl named Paulette (Fossey) chases her stray puppy across a bridge. Her parents go after her and are killed by machine gun fire from a plane. If that wasn’t horrible enough, her puppy is dead also. Paulette is picked up by another a couple and the wife coldly throws the dead dog into a nearby river. There is no time for a proper funeral. She escapes them and finds her dead dog with one of the film’s striking images: Paulette walking through the forest alone, clutching her dead puppy. What a shocking introduction into this harsh world! What makes it so powerful is the unflinching depiction of how cheap life is and how quickly Paulette’s parents are taken away from her. In the first few minutes she is left with nothing.
By chance, she stumbles across occupied farmland and meets a boy named Michel (Poujouly) and they become fast friends. His family takes the little girl in. Paulette is given a glass of milk upon her arrival and there’s a dead fly in it! Since Michel found her, he is enlisted by his family to look after the girl, like calming her down after she cries out in her sleep. He too witnesses death in his family when his brother dies from complications of being kicked by a horse. Although, his death isn’t quick, like Paulette’s parents, but gradual and very painful.
Amidst this tragedy, these people are able to find humour to lighten the mood, even if only for a moment. Michel and Paulette are able to find solace in each other. They end up bonding over digging a grave for her dead puppy and decide to create their own little cemetery for other dead animals so that the dog won’t be lonely. Michel points out that other graves have crosses on them. At first, they make their own and then Michel becomes obsessed with finding more and this leads to him stealing them off other graves and even attempting to take one off the altar at their local church. Eventually their obsession for crosses leads to an escalating conflict between Michel’s family and a neighbouring one. Throughout, there are simple acts of kindness that are so touching and provide glimmers of hope in this often cruel, unforgiving world.
The two child actors are fantastic, free of any self-conscious acting tics. They deliver completely naturalistic performances aided by their young age which frees them from being burdened by any acting classes or methodologies. It is also a tribute to Clement’s direction that he was able to coax such heartfelt performances out of them. Your heart really goes out to poor Paulette. The world she knows is gone forever with the death of her parents. What a scary concept at that young age (or any age for that matter). It makes you instantly sympathize with her plight and what makes her fate that much more tragic. Clement refuses to sentimentalize his subject matter or the characters. They make mistakes and have their faults but that’s what makes them all the more interesting to watch.
There is a collection of interviews, including one with director Rene Clement that originally appeared on French television in 1963. He mentions that the movie had problems getting finished and then being distributed because of difficulties with the producer but all the while he felt that he was making an important movie. He talks about his approach towards working with actors both famous and non-professional. There is also an interview with actress Brigitte Fossey done in 2001. She was only five years old when she made Forbidden Games and had never acted before. Fossey talks about how she got the role and how the film developed from a short into a full length feature. Finally, there is a 1967 interview with both Clement and Fossey where they talk about working on the movie and how he directed her with clips from the film.
“Alternate Opening and Ending” was originally intended to bookend the film and gives the children’s story a less horrific and tragic spin by making it seem more like a fairy tale where everything eventually worked out for both of them. This lessens the impact of the final cut and thankfully these were not used.
Finally, there is a trailer.