Grading Historical Movies: Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games”

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The second film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Rene Clement’s 1952  “Forbidden Games.”

Overall grade from 45 students: B+

Review One

By Sean Mullee

Grade:  A

Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games opens during the French Exodus of 1940 after the German invasion and subsequent occupation. It follows a young Parisian girl named Paulette who, after losing her parents and dog at the beginning of the film, finds a place in the house of the Dolles, a rural family of farmers. Paulette quickly makes friends with the youngest Dolle, Michel, and the two begin to create their own fun in the wake of war, making an animal graveyard so that Paulette’s dog will not be lonely in the afterlife. The film is phenomenally well made, due mostly in part to director Rene Clement who meticulously directed both Brigitte Fossey (Paulette) and Georges Pujouly (Michel), having them retake many shots to get the exact reactions he wanted. Both children are incredibly well-written characters and their dialogue and performances are believable. The story is at its most endearing as Michel becomes an older brother to Paulette, helping her to cope with the loss of her parents through the construction of the graveyard. And in the same way Michel shields Paulette from the atrocities of poverty and war, Paulette becomes Michel’s companion and friend as he struggles with the loss of his own brother. In addition, the film explores themes of familial bonds and rivalries as the Dolles must bury their son as their neighbors’ son returns home from war and connects with their daughter. Perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates the loss of innocence that is so often caused by wars and poverty, as Michel and Paulette must grow up fast to understand and cope with the world around them. As a film, the movie is expertly crafted and challenges norms to tackle the difficult topic of finding happiness in wartime.

Not only does the movie succeed as a film about childhood innocence, it also depicts and comments upon the difficulties faced by the civilians of France. In the first scene the exodus out of France reveals the chaos of people being shot and bombed by aerial forces, showing the hopelessness many of these citizens felt. As it transitions to the Dolle’s farm, we, the viewers, get a snapshot look at the life of the impoverished rural farmers who lived in the countryside of France. Clement manages to capture their lifestyle and feelings towards family and religion. On a deeper level, Clement also reveals many truths about the war, showing the audience how war is unrelenting in its damage. War is a time where no one is spared, not even children, and all must face its atrocities, which can scar for life. Clement’s film is integral to showing a part of war we so seldom overlook, especially in America; the toll it takes on the civilians who must witness it firsthand. This is why Forbidden Games earns such a high rating from me, for depicting so expertly the struggles everyday citizens face during the war.

Review Two

By Blake Mullennix

Grade:  A

Forbidden Games illustrates the chaos of France in June 1940, after Nazi forces entered
Paris. The film opens with French men and women fleeing Paris through the countryside as Nazi
planes shoot down at them. Within the first five minutes, director René Clément highlights a
major, recurring theme of the film: a lack of human connection among mankind. While this is
more obvious in regards to the conflict between the Germans and French, Clément suggests that the French themselves lack cohesion as the path out of Paris becomes an “everyone for
themselves” situation. After the main character’s (Paulette) family is gunned down, the five
year old is reluctantly taken in by a caravan, but they hardly notice when she leaves to retrieve
her dead dog from the nearby stream. This is the first of many examples of people not looking
out for one another, thus exemplifying France’s deep fragmentation. Historically speaking, there
had already been talk of “two Frances” (urban and rural) at that time and while Clément does
show a clear distinction between Parisians and the rural French, Forbidden Games highlights the
overall discord among all French. The two neighbors of rural France don’t get along in the film
and are heavily concerned with who is more French, who are, “deserters” of the French military
cause, and what the other is up to.

The lack of personal connection can too be seen through the unique perspective of
children under war. The Dollé family initially is not very welcoming to Paulette. They withhold human
kindness and are very cold toward the distraught five year old. There too, is a disconnect
between the children and the adults in Forbidden Games. Michel and Paulette are often
overlooked and discounted as kids who don’t know anything. For example, when the police
come to take Paulette, the Dollé adults laugh and say, “kids are just like that,” as Paulette
demands to stay at the farm. In fact, the adults seem to be unchanged by the departure of Paulette
shortly thereafter. The significance for all of the disunity between the characters and the people
of France comes back to two main ideas that help Forbidden Games convey a historical and
metaphorical truth of France in 1940. One being that France, since the revolution in 1789, had
undergone numerous republics, dictatorships, and overall political chaos. The second, being the
more metaphorical/emotional truth, relates to the future of France. Clément questions that if all
of these groups are lacking some sort of unity, comradery, or even the ability to look out for one
another, then how can France continue to exist in the future?

Although the narrative and characters were fictional, the plot to Forbidden Games was
plausible. The way in which Clément illustrates the fragmentation of France is so effective that it
conveys deeper truths. The historical, emotional, and metaphorical truths revealed in this film are incredibly powerful, and thus make Forbidden Games an important historical film.

Review 3

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A

René Clément takes a step back from the stereotypical World War II movie glorifying war—and instead decides to focus on meager peasants residing on a farm. Very underwhelming…? Not even close. Many people could take different images away from this movie, but I will centralize around the following point: this movie was raw. It was authentic. There was nothing phony about it. Too often it seems as though directors are so focused on the sensationalized response they hope to elicit from their movies that they often forget what really matters—believability. A movie can (and Forbidden Games is certainly an example of this) for all intents and purposes seem overly simplistic, but if the message it manages to convey is meaningful, then it has achieved its purpose.

At its core, this movie focuses on two children, and their attempts at making sense of death and loss. A simple concept, but one that leaves the audience with several questions to ponder. What is morality? How do children interpret death? How do children react to death? Why do children do what they do? What are the long-forgotten effects of war on some of the most vulnerable of all people? What is the role of faith in understanding the unknown?

There is not enough space for a lengthy plot summary, but I feel it only proper to provide some background to aid in making my argument more coherent. A young girl finds herself facing immense loss after the death of both her parents as well as her dog. She is taken in by some nearby peasants, and instantly forms a unique bond with one of the boys, Michel. This bond is what drives the entire movie. Michel can be seen as sort of a fatherly-figure in the movie, despite his young age. Most obviously, he is the bedrock for Paulette… a source of comfort and security she so desperately needs. He also helps take care of his wounded brother. The connection between Michel and Paulette is one that is so raw and authentic, one forgets they are watching a movie. As Robert Rosenstone brilliantly puts it, “The ability to elicit strong, immediate emotion…[is] no doubt the practice that most clearly distinguish[es] the history film from history on the page” (Rosenstone 15). Clément’s directing produced scenes where the audience was naturally inclined to feel emotional in a way that simply could not be accomplished on printed page. By showing the steadily increasing collection of stolen crosses and how both children become more and more obsessed with them, it allows the audience to witness a true childhood dilemma: attempting to answer questions that are too large to comprehend. Since neither Michael (and especially not Paulette) can fully understand death, they become obsessed with it… so much so they stockpile an abandoned mill full of dead animals and crucifixes.

Despite the somewhat strange decisions of these two children, a theme begins to emerge—one that is quite profound and very applicable even today. In even the bleakest of times, little kids often attempt to find the goodness in the world. In this case, that took the form of both of them bonding together and finding something that helped them make sense of the world. As twisted as it might have been, it was raw and touching. On the other hand, the positivity of the children juxtaposes somewhat humorously with the adults, who seem to be grumpy, miserable, and stressed. Granted—they oftentimes have good reason to be, but something is to be said about how children have the ability to see the light in the darkest of times.


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