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Rob Edelman: A French Classic

One of the all-time great films about war and its impact on those who are irrevocably caught up in a world that is coming apart around them will be screening at Film Forum in Manhattan from April 24 through May 7. It is a new restoration of a French classic. Its title is FORBIDDEN GAMES; it dates from 1952; its director is René Clément, one of the top post-war European filmmakers; and it also is available on DVD.

The time is June, 1940, and France is under attack. Men, women, and children are refugees, fleeing their homes as German airplanes drop bombs on them. Among them are a father, a mother, and their sweet five-year-old daughter and her beloved pet pooch. The child, whose name is Paulette, is the definition of innocence. You want to hug her and protect her. But the bombs keep dropping and, at the outset, the parents are killed. So is Paulette’s dog. So in an instant, this vulnerable child finds herself all alone. What will be her fate? Even more to the point, what will be her view of the world now that it has been so rudely and cruelly upended?

FORBIDDEN GAMES is a punch-in-the-gut portrayal of the devastation of war and its impact on the most innocent and blameless, from little Paulette to the simple farm family that takes her in to Michel, its youngest member. As the story progresses, Paulette and Michel bond in a very special way, one in which only children can. What they do, and the secret they share, offers pungent commentary on how the youngest among us are forced to cope with life and death in wartime. Plus, the film cleverly lampoons the petty squabbles and inane behavior of adults amid the very real dangers that surround them.

Granted, FORBIDDEN GAMES is of its time, being that it was made a few short years after World War II. But the issues with which it deals are timeless, and it features a final shot that is stirring and heartbreaking. Indeed, it is one of the most memorable in the history of cinema.

Also of note on the DVD are the extras, which include an alternate opening and ending that reportedly never were seen in theaters. Featured are the two actors who play Paulette and Michel. But here, they are seen as different characters: a well-dressed boy and girl who are sharing the story of Paulette and Michel, as if to emphasize that the wartime plight of Paulette and Michel is pure fiction. It is fascinating to view this opening and ending, but it is for good reason that they were not included in the FORBIDDEN GAMES release print because they surely would have lessened the film’s impact.

The DVD also includes two interviews. One is with RenéClément that dates from the early 1960s. The other is with Brigitte Fossey, the actress who plays Paulette. It is from 2001, which is a half-century after the film’s release, and Fossey offers some revealing reminiscences of everything from how she was cast to the filmmaking process to how she responded when she found herself embraced by the international film community when FORBIDDEN GAMES was screened at the Venice Film Festival.

“That was my first taste of fame,” she recalls. “It was something I didn’t understand at all. It was too much for me, everyone pouncing on me like that. It was very friendly, but also frightening.” And after returning to school and describing how her classmates responded to her now that she was a “movie star,” Fossey adds: “I realized then that fame is something that isolates you and makes you lonely, and that the best things in life are dreams, passion, friendship, and simplicity. So very early on, I learned that fame is just an illusion.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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