Second-rate filmmakers will tell stories of war through the eyes of children as a means of justifying their faux-naïve sentimentality. Conversely, a world-class artist employs the same dramatic device to illuminate life. The opening scenes of René Clément’s classic Forbidden Games anticipate the equally dazzling opening minutes of André Téchiné‘s Strayed, except Clément’s aesthetic—coarser than his contemporary’s but certainly no less breathtaking—serves a more paradoxical purpose: Along with the final devastating scene of a frightened Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) stranded inside a Red Cross shelter, the documentary veracity of this opening tableau—in which Luftwaffe planes strafe the French countryside with bombs and Parisian refugees scatter for their lives—helps to frame an ironic fairy tale.
After witnessing the death of her parents, Paulette follows a loose “war horse” through the countryside. Dragging the corpse of her dead doggy behind her (she crushed him beneath the weight of her body after trying to avoid bullets falling from the sky), the girl is led by a cow to a peasant boy, Michel (Georges Poulouly), who rescues her from her isolation and takes her into his parents’ home. The war, now, moves to the background of the story, a reflection of five-year-old Paulette’s failure to comprehend the harsh reality that claimed her mother and father’s lives. This is the way Clémént validates the aloof nature of childhood, which is not to say the psychological toll of war isn’t part of the story’s philosophical fiber.
Paulette may not understand death the way adults do (her state of impenetrable mystification is cunningly evoked when she feels her dead mother’s cheek and, soon after, an old woman tosses the girl’s dead dog into a river), but in her interactions with Michel it’s obvious that she’s processing her grief on a subconscious level. (This is most instructive during the elaborate burials the two children conduct for dead animals.) Clémént’s aesthetic isn’t faultless. Unlike De Sica or Téchiné, he’s unable to give his fairy-tale iconography the explicitly lyrical affectation that might have helped to ease the dilemma of his cartoonish vision of peasant life, but the man had an uncanny gift for structural and theoretical contrast (see 1960’s chillingly sexy Purple Noon for further proof). Besides, it’s difficult to fault a film that scrutinizes the veracity of childhood with such clarity.