Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#318: Forbidden Games

(René Clément, 1952)

One of the funny things about watching all of these Criterion films in random order - as opposed to other people who are taking a more user-friendly (read: intelligent) approach - is that sometimes without reason a clear connection between two films emerges. At first glance, Forbidden Games and Mafioso have little in common - one is the story of a middle class man being pulled back into the culture of his youth, while the other is the story of a childhood friendship against the backdrop of World War II. However, both films are able to effortlessly balance on the seemingly impenetrable line between humor and tragedy.

Of the two films, Forbidden Games is the more impressive, both because the two tones are so effortlessly blended in virtually every scene and because the film is able to balance its war setting with a universal message about childhood and the power of imagination. Forbidden Games is at once almost unbearably sad and oddly funny, and manages to incorporate a vast range of themes - focusing on everything from religion and childhood to rural culture and war - without descending into academic exercise.

Forbidden Games tells the story of Paulette, a young girl whose parents are randomly killed by a Nazi air attack as they fleed Paris through the countryside. The girl happens upon an older boy named Michel, a country kid who takes her into his family and promptly falls in love with her. What follows are two equally absurd games, one played by the kids, who construct a cemetery out of found animal corpses and stolen crosses, and one played by the adults, Michel's parents and their feuding neighbors, who have a Romeo and Juliet subplot boiling over, threatening to explode in their faces when the two games collide.

The film is essentially a fractured fairy tale - in fact, deleted bookends had Michel reading the story to Paulette, making the comparison closer to reality than metaphor. In the same way that actual fairy tales can be extremely dark and yet somehow have at their core a child-friendly appeal, Forbidden Games isn't so much about the war as it is about the ways in which children can fashion other worlds out of the simplest moments. Clément manages to depict this in such an unbiased way that it seems as if he is simultaneously satirizing his characters and worshipping at the altar of childlike innocence. The cold way in which the two children perform what to many people - particularly in the era and culture in which Forbidden Games was made - would be a horrible offense, to God, to the dead, to their families, ironically makes the film feel much more powerful. Clément seems to be searching for the guilt in all of us, finding innocence (or ignorance, depending upon your cynicism) instead.

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