After an unforgiving attack by the Nazis kills her parents and pet dog, five-year-old Paulette is left without a family or a home. A local peasant family kindly takes her in, their ten-year-old son Michel becoming both brother and friend to her. The two bury Paulette’s beloved dog in a discreet spot in the woods, and soon become fascinated by dead animals. As their macabre interest grows, they collect corpses of animals to bury in a rudimentary cemetery, but when Michel steals crosses from the village’s graveyard, including that of his own deceased brother, the local adults decide to put a stop to these ‘forbidden games’. Worse still is the overhanging threat of the police, keen to take custody of the newly orphaned Paulette.
Despite its themes, Forbidden Games is careful not to overwhelm with morbidity – director René Clément remembers to celebrate life as an element of meditation on death. The protagonists, skilfully portrayed by young actors Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujoly, behave as any bereaving child would. In a particularly provocative sequence towards the end, Michel discards all of the graveyard’s crosses, his anger justified and pure. The children’s explorations of their decaying environment are extraordinarily well shot – the camera becomes another child, free of judgment or authority. Forbidden Games is a charming, honest exploration of how the machinations of death affect children not readily equipped with the emotions to handle it, and still holds its own alongside similar features such as Ponette and The Spirit of the Beehive.
From Celluloid Breakfast