This week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience finds us celebrating the centennial of French director René Clément by visting what is surely his best-known and most highly-regarded work, the winner of the 1952 Leone d’Oro at the Venice Film Festival and recipient of an honorary Oscar, Forbidden Games. A marvelously compact social satire disguised as a fable about childhood, it suffered a major blow in its reputation when Clément became a favorite whipping boy of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, for reasons that never became clear to me – if this is representative of the worst of ’50s French cinema, it wasn’t in nearly the dire shape they claimed it was.
The film uses a pair of children in WWII, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and Michel (Georges Poujoly), as the vehicle for a consideration of the morbid, hypocritical behavior of the adults around them; in a small village obsessed with the trappings of death, the children entertain themselves by mocking up a cemetery for dead animals they find lying around, or, more troubling, that Michel takes the initiative to make dead. The bulk of the movie finds them inadvertently parodying the Catholic iconography all around them, using it to legitimise their actions without having any real sense of what it’s supposed to represent, knowing only that it’s “right”.
Picking a favorite shot from this movie was as hard as it’s ever been for me as long as this feature has been running: both because of the rich spread and because the two possibilities I eventually settled on were both problematic in their different ways. In one case, because it wasn’t one shot, but a pair, from either end of the movie, that echoed each other in thematically vital ways (they both involve things being thrown in the river), and because I was loath to spoil the ending, which would have been necessary to discuss it at all. The other, because it summed up one major element of the movie so well that it verged on obvious, as is evidenced by the fact that it’s part of the film’s Criterion Collection DVD cover.
But that’s where I ended up going anyway; if it’s good enough for Criterion, I reasoned, it’s good enough for me. And thus do we arrive at a shot of Michel’s family, arguing vehemently about their hated neighbors, the Gouards.
As father Georges (Jacques Marin) fumes and yells, the camera tilts down to see Michel and Paulette happily absorbed in making little grave markers for their cemetery, oblivious to situation behind them.
It works so well, in part, because there’s absolutely no need for explication. The children, who spend the entire movie being a bit confused by the way that grown-up life works, are divided from what’s happening to the two families in part because of their own ignorant actions, locked in a world totally divorced from anything else. There are many shots throughout the movie that stress the divorce between what the children understand and what the adults around them do; but none that communicate it with such unmistakable force. A touch on the nose, perhaps, but done so fluidly and confidently, and buoyed up so well by the performances (Fossy and Poujoly are, in this movie, two of the best child actors ever filmed), that it registers as purposeful, hard-hitting cinema and not hand-holding. And it is maybe the lynchpin moment in a truly brilliant act of confident visual storytelling, whose gestures towards sentiment don’t begin to undercut the complexity and sobriety of its themes.