Jeux interdits (Forbidden games) — 1952. Directed by René Clément.
A Netflix instant queue find. It goes to show how conditioned I am by the typically Hollywood ending that I was left mildly aghast at the ending of this movie. I don’t know how I was so surprised, but towards the end I checked the running time left and rebelled that there were only a couple of minutes left. “BUT IT WON’T END WELL!” I screamed inwardly.
Backing up a little. The story takes place in rural France, World War II. A stream of Parisians is fleeing into the country in the midst of air strikes. During one of the attacks, a little girl, Paulette, breaks loose from the crowd to chase after her puppy. Her parents follow after her. Both parents and even the dog are gunned down and the little girl is left holding the lifeless dog and not seeming to comprehend what’s just happened to her parents or her puppy. She wanders through the countryside until she comes across a farm, where a family takes her in not so much out of kindness as to show up their feuding neighbors with an act of charity. The only family member who truly cares about the little girl is the youngest son of the family, Michel, who takes her under his wing. The children become inseparable, and Michel has the idea to begin a pet cemetery hidden on the grounds of an old mill, where they can bury Paulette’s dog.
One thing I found particularly interesting about this movie was its more frank and/or not completely unambiguous depiction of religious life, as well as romantic relationships, to a lesser extent. The young Paulette is largely ignorant about praying and other religious rites and symbols. Michel, partly at the admonition of his disbelieving family, takes it upon himself to teach Paulette about religion. But there’s no overt religious statements in the movie and Michel’s efforts seem prompted more by childish fun than anything else. In fact, he decides to deck the pet cemetery with stolen crosses from the human cemetery–including his own brother’s)–as well as the gilded on at the church altar and those flanking the wagon used to bear coffins to the church. The discovery of these thefts leads to a mistaken assignment of guilt, which ends with the fathers of the two feuding families falling into an open grave and brawling. I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to film history, domestic or international, but I have a hard time imagining such a scene being anything other than shocking in an American film at the time; forget being played for laughs as it is here. (OK, I laughed.) As for the relationships depicted, one of the side stories involves the burgeoning romance of two teenagers from the two feuding neighbor families. In one scene, the couple are shown in the aftermath of their tumble in the hay (which literally took place in a pile of hay).
Careful attention (i.e. having been conscious the previous 80 or so minutes) should have alerted me to the fact that this movie was going to be a little different and that I might well not get my happy ending. The temporary adoptive family, as mentioned previously, have not entirely pure motives in taking Pauline in. Their religious and sexual mores are shown in a more realistic and light. And the children themselves are more naturalistic and less cloying than children I’m used to using in movies from this era. I particularly liked Paulette and the depiction of her grief–or rather, her confusion and attempts to grapple with the idea that she is largely alone in the world. She can’t seem to explicitly express sadness for her loss but is preoccupied instead with strange, childlike fears about the dead getting wet during a rainstorm. The process of creating the pet/animal cemetery is how she slowly begins to process death. At one point she becomes incensed and indignant when Michel kills a nearby beetle to add to their “collection,” and begs him not to do such things. But overall both are engrossed with the creation of this unlikely, special place in the midst of the family farm. The bond that grows between the two is genuinely sweet and ultimately all the more crushing at movie’s end.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS: The children are separated when police arrive at the farm to take Paulette to an orphanage. Michel becomes despondent and runs to the pet cemetery, newly resplendent with stolen crosses and all, the final incarnation of which Paulette never got to see. Michel begins to destroy the crosses and throw them into the river. Meanwhile at a crowded Red Cross where Paulette is waiting to be taken away, she hears a voice say the name “Michel” and perks up. In her five-year-old confusion, she thinks her friend is somewhere nearby and leaves the spot the Red Cross nuns had just instructed her to stand by. As she wanders along she murmurs Michel’s name and then, unexpectedly, “Maman?” But of course it’s not Michael, her mother is gone, and Paulette is lost and alone in the crowd. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS OVER
In short, a wonderful and heartbreaking movie. And below is one rendition of the beautiful song that is prominently featured in Jeux interdits.