By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Forbidden Games
FORBIDDEN GAMES (“Jeux Interdits“) (Four Stars)
France: Rene Clement, 1952
Forbidden Games (“Jeux Interdits”), adapted from the novel by co-screenwriter Francois Boyer, is director Rene Clement’s Oscar-winning, now somewhat unfairly neglected anti-war film classic. Set in the French countryside during World War II, it’s a once much-loved social drama about two sensitive children — an 11-year-old country boy and a 5-year-old Parisian girl (Georges Poujouly and Brigitte Fossey) — who create a private play graveyard and pet cemetery, for their own childlike games of death. Together, they fashion a delicate realm of dangerous dreams and games, a world far from the fighting but one that also respond s to some of the village cruelties around them, while allowing them to escape from the horrors or threat of the raging war in Europe.
Winner of the 1952 American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, and the top prize of the Venice Film festival (The Golden Lion), this great, now overlooked film is the finest work of director Clement — who was Jean Cocteau‘s technical advisor and camera director on the 1946 Beauty and the Beast, and who also won another, earlier Oscar (an honorary one) for his 1949 The Walls of Malapaga.
Clement’s better known Forbidden Games, like the neorealist masterpieces of directors Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves), and Robert Rossellini (Rome: Open City and Europa 51), is one of a remarkable and deeply moving series of post-war classic films from France and Italy, that center around children and the ways that World War II and its aftermath injured and brutalized them. Here, young Poujouly and the child Brigitte Fossey (who grew up into one of the most popular French star film actresses of the ’60s and ’70s) draw us into their private fantasy world of the dead, even as they become more and more alienated from the cruel and superficial world of the living around them.
Forbidden Games is one of the great black-and-white French films of the post-war, pre-New Wave cinema era. But it‘s also one of a group of initially admired French post-war films that were later radically underrated by the New Wave critic/directors, including Truffaut and Godard. (Truffaut was especially down on “Games‘” famed main screenwriting team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost.)
It’s a portrait of a very different French countryside than the bucolic, rustic, sun-drenched realm of humanistic wonders we see in the charming films of Marcel Pagnol (The Baker’s Wife) and Jean Renoir (A Day in the Country). Clement‘s world is considerably darker and more painful, more akin to the wickeder small town domain of Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau) — a place that fosters a society deeply injurious to the young and innocent children who are Clement’s wounded protagonists. With brilliant calm and stunning artistry, with lucid clarity and impeccable style, and with immense technical skill, director Clement flawlessly deploys the emotion and discretion of his young actors against a beautifully observed naturalistic background. He draws us inevitably into their tragic story, and, without sentimentality, still breaks our hearts.
Clement never directed a better or more moving movie, unless one suggests him as the “real” but uncredited co-director of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. And though he continued making sophisticated art house films through the ’50s — including Gervaise (from the Emile Zola novel) and This Angry Age a.k.a. The Sea Wall (from a book by Marguerite Duras) — he eventually settled into a steady, comfortable metier as one of the major French film noir cineastes — making the inarguable noir classics Purple Noon (adapted from a Patricia Highsmith thriller, and starring Alain Delon) and Rider on the Rain (with Charles Bronson).
The movie, and Clement, deserved better — just as the children of “Jeux Interdits,” Fossey and Poujouly, deserved better from the half-blind, sometimes sadistic rural community and the war-torn world that surrounded and alienated and drove them apart. (In French, with English subtitles.)
A restored version of Rene Clement’s classic Forbidden Games, with new subtitles, will play at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles (11272 Santa Monica Blvd.) from August 28-September 3, alternating with Frank Ribiere’s gastrodoc Steak ®Evolution. For times, 310-473-8530 or LandmarkTheatres.com.