“Forbidden Games”/ “Jeux interdits” (1952)

Directed by René Clément
StudioCanal
France, 85 minutes
Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly

Eighty-five minutes is not a long time by any stretch of the imagination, especially in the film world. How is it possible for a film-maker to squeeze all he or she wants to say in an 85-minute feature? A viewing of René Clément’s Forbidden Games will answer that question pretty succinctly.

The film tells the heartbreaking story of a young girl, Paulette, whose parents are killed by a Luftwaffe air strike of Paris refugees. She has no clue about what to do, and thus follows a wayward, rider-less carriage into an area of farming families. She is found by the youngest son of the Dollé family, Michele. The family makes her their own, more or less treating her like a china doll once they realize she comes from, what they assume to be, an upper-class area of Paris.

Corrupted childhood is almost exactly the one thing that this film is about. On the surface, it is an almost overly-sentimental story of a lost child finding a home, but Clément is going much deeper than that. War does terrible, terrible things – you don’t need any more than an Italian Neo-Realist film to make that cliché obvious – but Clément’s argument is that one of the worst things it does is take innocent children and, as Brigitte Fossey says in an interview included on the DVD, turn them into monsters. Paulette becomes obsessed with death to the point that she decides that she needs to create her own cemetery, causing problems for Michele who devotes himself to her. 

The adults misunderstanding this obsession, fueled by their blind devotion to religion and the state, is another issue that Clément is taking up here. The Dollé family elders can only view the world in religious terms and can only give into the state’s wishes. Despite a growing affection for Paulette – even the mother says that she has become her own – their desire to do ‘the right thing’ leads them to give her up and probably one of the most saddening endings in film.

StudioCanal licensed the film for release by Criterion in 2005. Criterion’s presentation of the film is just perfect. The transfer is without problems, looking as good as it can, although I’ll admit the sound was a little harsh. I think even if I could understand French beyond my basic, rudimentary understanding, I’d still need subtitles. An optional English track is available, although I’d avoid it at all costs.

Extras include a collection of archival interviews. There’s a StudioCanal-produced 2001 interview with Fossey that lasts for around 15 minutes. She is very animated and relates much more about the film’s creation and her work with Clément than I would have expected, considering she was only five years old at the time. Also included are two Clément interviews, both lasting around six minutes. In the first, he is interviewed solo, as he explains the difficulties of making the film, putting it in perspective with his other work and answering silly, typical French questions (why were the French so obsessed with cinema’s supposed death in the 1960’s?). The second joins Clément with Fossey, on her occasion of returning to film-making at the age of 20.

Criterion also included a lengthy booklet with probably one of the most detailed scholarly essays I’ve ever read about a film by Peter Matthews. The artwork is also beautiful, following a gray-scale motif, with illustrations of scenes from the film rather than photos.

The Verdict: Unfortunately, Forbidden Games was one of the casualties of the Great StudioCanal Purge in Spring 2010 and thus is out of print. Since it was only a lower-tier release and not one of Criterion’s most popular releases, it is actually pretty inexpensive and still available on Amazon. There was also an Essential Art House edition.

This is a fantastic film that will completely change your view on a particular aspect of war. It is one of the few films that touches on war’s effect on children. It is heart breaking and probably not something you’ll watch repeatedly, but you have to see this.

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