If there is a more powerful moviegoing experience to be had in New York this coming weekend other than René Clément’s Forbidden Games, I’m not sure I can handle it. Originally released in 1952, ‘Forbidden Games’ is one of those movies that reminds all of us why we love cinema and why movies are the most powerful form of artistic expression ever devised by mankind. With Forbidden Games René Clément has accomplished that rare feat of using the medium of film as an instrument of poetry. I don’t think I will ever fully recover from the film’s unique blend of horror and innocence, a blend that will leave anyone with a pulse both laughing and weeping for the film’s duration. I like to think I’m a tough guy with a heart of stone, a viewer who cries usually around once per decade while watching movies, but with this film I have officially used up my tears quota for the rest of my life. Just the music alone brings on such an intense surge of emotion that I find it impossible to watch the trailer (see below) without getting misty-eyed.
When I was invited to see René Clément’s Forbidden Games at a morning press screening, I attended the screening more out of a sense of curiosity about film history more than any driving need to see the movie. I love French film, and Forbidden Games had been on my list of movies-to-see for years but I never found a reason to get excited to watch it. Prior to the screening, I had not slept well and worried about my ability to get emotionally invested in a movie over half a century old. Never have I been so wrong. This movie wastes no time and with the very first scene lets the viewer know they are in for a unique experience. The story opens with the evacuation of Paris during an attack by the Nazis. Within minutes, the 5-year-old Paulette (played to uncanny perfection by Brigitte Fossey) loses her parents and her dog to the violence of WWII. As she wanders away from the attack, holding her dead pet in her arms, by chance she meets the 11-year-old Michel (played by Georges Poujouly) who lives on a farm nearby. Michel’s family takes in Paulette and before long Paulette barely remembers her old life, even forgetting her own last name, as she and Michel build one of the most beautiful friendships ever caught on film.
Without going into too much detail that might spoil the experience for new viewers, I do want to call attention to the way in which this film tells two stories simultaneously in order to emphasize the innocence of being a child even amidst the horrors of WWII. On one level we have an often hilarious story of two rival families in rural France trying to get by as the world grows more dark and perilous around them. Meanwhile Paulette decides that her dog will be lonely buried all by himself so she and Michel decide to build an animal cemetery in order for the dog to always have company. They decide it is only fitting to make and eventually steal as many beautiful crosses as they can to adorn the graves in their cemetery leading to mass confusion in the local community as crosses from the church and local cemetery continue to go missing. The conspiratorial nature of this game being played by Paulette and Michel is heartbreakingly innocent and adorable. Without question these are the most magical performances by children I’ve ever seen. These moments are all the more precious as the realities of WWII continue to intrude leading to a finale of devastating emotional power.
It is incredible that Forbidden Games initially struggled to find an audience. The film played without fanfare at Cannes but eventually the film caught on and became a global art house phenomenon. Forbidden Games won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival before going on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The film has been beautifully restored by Rialto Pictures, featuring brand new subtitles, and will be playing at the Film Forum April 24th – May 7th (you can find showtimes here). I can’t recommend the movie highly enough. This is a rare opportunity to see a pristine copy of a genuine masterpiece on the big screen and it is an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life.
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