Tuesday, July 31, 2012

René Clement | Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games)

stolen crosses
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, François Boyer and René Clement (screenplay, based on a novel by François Boyer), René Clement (director) Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) / 1952

 Clement’s poignant film begins with horrible images of a mass escape by citizens of Paris and elsewhere into the French countryside, German planes of World War II following them and randomly shooting at the streaming hordes on foot, in horse carts, and cars, the few processions they have been able to gather weighing them down. Upon one strafing, everyone temporarily abandons their former positions, falling to the ground to protect themselves. Among them are a husband and wife with their five-year old daughter, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her pet dog. When they return to their car, it will not start up, as others behind them in the seemingly endless line of escapees impatiently honk and scream for them to move forward. After a few moments, others grab the car, tossing it into a culvert, the occupants escaping the vehicle just in time. Forced to carry some of their luggage, they are now among those on foot.

      A second horrible attack occurs, this time Paulette’s beloved pet escaping from her hands, as she rushes forward to capture it. Terrified of her running among the bullets, the couple chases after Paulette and, as they finally recapture her and the dog, drop again to the ground; but this time bullets strike the father, mother, and pet killing them all. The child touches the face of her mother as if in an attempt to awaken her, finally standing—her dog still in her arms—in desolate confusion. Another couple in the long line of pilgrims take her into their cart, demanding, however, she toss away the dead dog and, when she refuses, remove it from her arms, throwing into the river below the bridge which they, at that moment, are crossing. Another attack slows the course again, while Paulette takes advantage to run off in chase of her dog as his corpse flows downstream.

      It may be one of the most truly horrifying of any opening sequence, a scene so powerful, in part, because we know that episodes like this, as unbearable as they seem, really occurred. Yet in the very next sequence of events, we discover ourselves in an almost idyllic pastoral world, where local farmers seem to exist miles away from the chaos of the road. Here a young boy, Michel Dollé (the wonderful child actor Georges Poujouly) keeps watch over the family cows. Suddenly a horse, still carrying part of his cart, rushes into this “other” world, confusing the rustics, who cannot explain its presence in their simple paradise. Michel’s brother attempts to stop the interruptive horse—against the cries Madame Dollé (Suzanne Courtal) to leave him alone since is clearly a “warhorse”—and is kicked by the terrified beast in his stomach. The adults rush to his side, lifting his pained body to take him back to the house. In the upheaval, one of the cows bolts, chased by Michel. The cow quickly moves to the river, stopping for a moment by Paulette who has just retrieved her dead dog’s body. The boy, suddenly coming upon her, chastises her for not stopping the cow, while, nonetheless asking her who she is and why she is there. For the first time in the film, Paulette speaks, finally able to communicate to someone nearer her own age (Michel is 10) and, having finally retrieved the cow, Michel consoles the young child for the loss of her dog and parents, promising her another dog as he takes her to the family house.

      So has Clement, in two marvelous sequences, presented us two entirely different worlds that are only tangentially related. The world of the Dollés and the argumentative Gouard’s next door is one of utter poverty, the entire family dressed in rags, their house filthy, a fly drowned in a glass of milk which they offer the thirsty child. The women immediately comment on the beauty and cleanliness of Paulette’s dress. But despite their often coarse and seemingly unfeeling demeanors, they quickly determine to take the poor girl in, feeding her, offering her love, and even sacrificing their own bedding. A particularly close relationship quickly develops between the two children, as Michel, giving up his own rooftop bed, seems to be the only one who can console the tired and frightened five-year-old.

      We also soon discover that, despite the near complete ignorance of the rest of his family, Michel is a good student, both in school learning and in the religious instruction of the local priest. Paulette, it appears, has never encountered church doctrine, and is quickly taught prayers and religious catechism by Michel. (Roger Ebert suggests that Paulette may have been Jewish, and Michel's teaching her the catechism and her own later adoption of the Dollé name may save her life). Indeed, as the adult family members go about their daily business, the two children become closer and closer, Michel almost taking on Paulette not only as a sister, but as a kind of future mate—the one aspect of Clement’s film that I found difficult to swallow. Despite the slightly forced intimacy between the two, however, we can accept it because the magical world the two children create is parallel to but so different from the violece—the violence growing out of war and out the bitter realities of peasant life (the Dollés relationship with their neighbors, the Gouards might almost remind one of the American Hatfields and McCoys)—surrounding them. And yet, like the worlds we have encountered in the first scenes—the world of the refugees and the world of the local farmers—the imaginative existence of the children inevitably comes into contact and crosses into the world of the adults.

      After Michel explains to Paulette that she cannot again see her parents who have by now been buried, she suddenly desires the same for her dog, attempting to take an ax to the hard ground. Michel interrupts her efforts, taking into an old mill where he helps her bury her dog. When she asks for a cross, he quickly constructs one out of two sticks. And when she feels that her dog will be lonely, Michel steals a vole from the local owl's nest, burying it next to the dog. So begins a terrifying and yet enchanting story at the center of this film of the children’s growing fascination with death, as they add animal after animal to their small “forbidden” cemetery, a chick (which despite Paulette’s insistence he not kill any animal, he has probably strangled in order to please her), a cockroach (which he denies he has killed: “I didn’t. It was a bomb that killed him.”), and other animals, each buried, their graves marked with paper signs created by Michel.

      When Michel’s brother, Georges (Jacques Marin) dies of complications from the horse’s kick, the children accompany the whole family to the local church, wherein Paulette discovers a whole world of beautiful crosses (both the crosses within the church and outside in the cemetery), she demands they borrow some of these lovely objects for their own sacred shrine.

      With stubborn fearlessness, Michel and Paulette steal out in the night, the sky lit up with German rockets, to fill a wheelbarrow with stolen crosses, including the one which graces Georges’ new plot. When the Dollé family, memorializing their son the next day, discover the cross and grave marker missing, they blame their neighbors; and when the Gouards, not to be outdone in the care of their family plots, show up at the same cemetery, the father (Lucien Hubert) attacks the Gouard plot, destroying their own cross. A terrible fight within an open grave follows, with the priest finally resolving the mystery of the missing crosses by naming Michel, whom he has caught the previous day attempting to steal the cross from the church altar.

     Michel disappears for the night, slipping into the house only to report to Paulette that he has finally finished the children’s glorious animal cemetery. But the following morning he is discovered by his father and nearly beaten—saved only by the fact that police show up to the house. Presuming the Gouards have reported him, Dollé further threatens his disobedient son. But when it is announced that they have come to take away Paulette to an orphanage, Michel attempts to broker a deal: he will tell where the crosses are if they agree to keep Paulette. The father agrees.

       As all children know, however, adults are not always true to their word—they lie, they hate, they kill—and Dollé signs the document releasing Paulette to police custody, Michel running off to destroy the children’s sacred place, tossing the stolen crosses in to the river, just as others have as discarded Paulette’s beloved dog.

       The last scene is, in some respects, is as painful as the film’s first. In a large train station, a Red Cross nun places a “marker” upon her new charge, Paulette, as she goes off to temporarily finish some paperwork, demanding the girl remain where she is to wait. A reunited couple brings a woman in the crowd to call “Michel, Michel!” as Paulette stands up to see if it is her Michel who has arrived. He is nowhere in sight, but the child cannot resist moving forward into the crowd with her own pleading voice calling out the same name. We cannot know whether she will attempt to return to the Dollé farm or whether she must wait years to attempt a reunion with her partner in their forbidden games. All we can know is that she has again lost what matters most in her ever-shrinking world.

Los Angeles, July 30, 2012

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