From the ages of about one to 12, half of my world existed within the confines of my imagination.
I spent hours there, drawing inspiration from everyone and everything around me to build vast stories that would occupy my hours of playtime. Once involved in a game, it was tough to leave it. Most summer days, after school and on weekends my sister and I would lock ourselves away in our room, the backyard, or even our parents’ room – whatever the story dictated – with a handful of toys and play-act complex scenarios that might put soap operas to shame. We’d begrudgingly put the game on pause for dinner and then rush back as soon as possible, intent only on carrying out our latest fascinating idea and oblivious to whatever else was going on in the outside world.
Though I haven’t played pretend in a decade, Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952) transported me back to those endless days of childhood, where the concerns of the adult world were secondary to the latest scheme or story to fixate my malleable young brain. Yes, this is a war film, and yes, it deals heavily with themes of religion and death, but Forbidden Games is first and foremost a study of the indefatigable power of youth, at once heartbreaking and startlingly familiar.
We meet little Paulette, played by the impossibly sweet-faced, six-year-old Brigitte Fossey, as she and her parents are fleeing Paris through the French countryside during a bombing raid in 1940. In between cowering on the side of the road with hundreds of other panicked evacuees as Nazi planes drop explosives overhead, Paulette runs after her dog, and when her parents chase after her, they are killed. The moment’s utter lack of theatrics is astonishing. One minute Paulette’s parents (and dog, Jock) are alive next to her on the ground, and the next they are dead.
Barely uttering a single cry, Paulette, too young to grasp the tragedy of the situation, wanders down the road, dead Jock in her arms, until she meets Michel (Georges Poujouly), a few years older than her and the son of a poor farmer. Michel’s family takes Paulette in and Michel and Paulette become fast friends. They quickly bond over a shared fascination for crosses and begin building an elaborate cemetery for Jock and other animals and insects in the family’s mill. Trouble brews, however, when Michel resorts to stealing crosses from his family and the local cemetery in order to complete the project for Paulette.
Adults and their problems exist in the world of Forbidden Games, but this is Paulette and Michel’s story. The war raging around them, the grave injury of one of Michel’s brothers and a rivalry with the family next door are viewed peripherally, as Paulette and Michel might view them in between their mission to collect crosses and build their cemetery. One priceless scene shows Michel and Paulette, on the hunt for a wheelbarrow, coming across Michel’s sister and the boy next door partly hidden in a bale of hay – we can guess what they’ve been up to, but Michel and Paulette glance at the lovers with a wonderful mix of marginal curiosity and utter indifference. Who cares what the grown-ups are doing when there’s an animal cemetery to be built?
As the film progresses and Michel also loses a family member, the cemetery game reveals itself as simply a way for the two children to process their grief and limited understanding of death the only way they know how: through play. Paulette almost never openly demonstrates grief for her parents’ deaths and the suddenness with which she finds herself living with perfect strangers, which would feel unsettling were it not for her game with Michel. Their mission, and friendship, is something to distract them, to occupy their minds, until the pain of their circumstances has subsided. It’s what gives them such remarkable resilience, and it reinforces the importance of letting children run off for hours with only each other and their imaginations to entertain them. Parents today should take note.
Clement lets the story unfold with admirable restraint, never letting sentimentality or the precociousness of his two young stars override simple truth. There are no dramatic flourishes, and tragedy happens quietly, with little fanfare. This must be how ordinary civilian families lived during the war.
I did not grow up in wartime, but Paulette and Michel’s games were my own. Forbidden Games captures a part of childhood so fleeting and yet still vivid long after one has grown up with such skillful honesty that it legitimizes the experience, allowing us to look back on those hours of meaningless play with fondness and gratitude. Playtime ought never to be discouraged, whether there’s a war going on or it’s time for dinner.