You can’t predict how people will grieve. After World War II, a psychic scar was left on the world that produced some of the most tragic films, as each country and culture tried to deal with the aftermath. For Americans, films such as The Best Years Of Our Lives or The Third Man exposed the hollowness of the wartime jingoism we had embraced. Italians tore through their cultural and physical destruction using Neorealism. Forbidden Games (dir. Rene Clement) is a French postwar film which, instead of lamenting the horrors of war, focuses on how people can emotionally survive death and loss.
The shadow of death hangs over the entire film. The opening scene is shocking “Odessa Steps”-like sequence where French refugees flee a German air raid. If this blog series was called Hit Me With Your Best Sequence instead of Hit Me With Your Best Shot, this would be my choice. Quick cuts between human victims and merciless machines make this a brutal scene to watch.
During this frightening introduction, a couple is killed and their young daughter Paulette is orphaned. Paulette’s reaction is one of shock mixed with numbness. At the moment of their deaths, she seems not to fully absorb the implications, instead mutely petting her mother’s face. After a few moments, Paulette grabs the corpse of her puppy Jock and runs. The care and longing with which she clings to Jock belies her true feelings. As she carries his corpse with her, Paulette’s actions surrounding Jock become the thematic center of the film.
Again, you can’t predict how people will grieve. Like a heart attack victim who feels pain in his arm instead of his chest, Paulette transfers all of her grief and confusion over her parents’ death onto a new obsession to “properly” bury Jock. A boy named Michel who takes her under his wing explains the basics of the burial ritual to her, and Paulette becomes determined to bury Jock. Her first attempt is my favorite shot of the film:
This is technically two parts of a shot-reverse-shot sequence. The day after Jock’s death, Paulette returns to his corpse to give it a proper burial. Despite the fact that his corpse has been exposed to the elements, thrown in a lake, and left to rot overnight in the rain, Paulette takes the time to pet his cheek and then hers – an action she’d earlier performed on her dead mother. Paulette mostly understands the world through physical touch. She reaches for comfort from dead things – her mother, her dog, and later a chick that Michel strangles for her. As a child she doesn’t have the adult revulsion towards death or understanding of death. After she pets Jock, she picks up a hoe to bury him. This is how Paulette cares by extension for her parents, by taking on the smaller task of burying her dog because she can’t bury them.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this film. After the initial terrifying sequence, the Nazis actually fade into the background and an omnipresent but offscreen threat, and Rene Clement mostly focuses on Paulette and Michel’s growing pet cemetery and Michel’s family’s rivalry with a neighboring family and his brother’s death by a horse. Death pervades the film, but not war, at least not directly.
I am grateful that Forbidden Games was chosen as the wild card for Hit Me With Your Best Shot. I don’t know much about the postwar period in cinematic history, so French war films are totally outside my purview. Most often when taking a film studies course, lessons on European cinema after WWII are confined to Italian Neorealism, until the 1960s hit, the heavens part, and French New Wave descends upon the class with a burst of academic vigor. However, I felt more emotional attachment to Forbidden Games than I have felt in a long time. Forbidden Games is a deeply personal journey through grief that doesn’t break it down into easy-to-define stages. Instead, Rene Clement shows us the humanity of war through the eyes of a grieving girl and her dog.