From the beginning of this film, there is a heartbreaking statement about the loss of innocence in times of war as we see the sensitive little girl Paulette lose both her parents and her little dog to a Nazi air raid on the French countryside. The desperation she has in clinging to the dead dog shows how much she doesn’t want to let go of what has made her life feel precious, especially when a woman in a wagon tells her the dog is dead and then throws it into the river. When Paulette races down to retrieve the dog from a river bank, she refuses to let go of her innocence and remain in her comfort zone, until she enters the lives of the young boy Michel and his family on their isolated farm.
They are kind enough to let her into their home and their comfort, yet they cannot understand the trauma she must feel and teach her how to pray as a way of feeling better, something she had never learned before hand. Her deepest connection is with Michel, as he sympathizes with her losses, least of all for her dog, and helps her bury a hole for the dog and find another little animal to put down there with him. The obsession with death creates a macabre edge to the children as they keep finding other little dead animals, even creatures they can kill, to build a hidden cemetery where no creature will be lonely. What they do to preserve this sacred place of their own is of no concern to Michel’s parents or the neighbors, who are contending with their own hostilities towards each other. The only human death Paulette witnesses in the midst of the family is that of the oldest son Georges, for whom she helps Michel pray for.
However, when they steal the crosses off of the hearse carrying Georges’ body and leave the father Dolle angry and blaming the neighboring family, the Gouards, for the theft, it shows how little concern the kids have for adults affairs as they do for their own little games. Likewise, Dolle won’t show much care about his son’s death as he does for the missing crosses, showing how ridiculous and self-righteous a religious family is about respecting its dead but caring too much about the religious traditions that come with it. It then leads to a row between Dolle and the Gouard patriarch over the missing crosses, to which the kids will do nothing to stop this and keep their mouths shut to preserve their sacred place. The local clergyman who Michel confessed his theft to promises to keep it secret, but is then angry with Michel over trying to steal his crosses and later exposes him to the two families to break up the fight, showing how the adults’ apparent sacredness for religion and promises are blinded by their own materialism for sacred objects. The kids’ association with their secret cemetery is more passionate and child-like, yet unsettling with how they have had to kill some creatures, such as a little cockroach, to which Paulette isn’t comfortable with but Michel thinks is the only way the animals won’t be lonely in their graves.
Whatever is regarded as sacred, whether it’s the cemetery or the crosses or the funeral of Georges, is contradicted by theft, materialism, dishonesty, and apathy, making the demands of children and adults very incompatible with each other. The defiance Michel shows against his overbearing father and his blackmailing of his older sister in her affair with the Gouards’ eldest son Francis causes deeper animosity between the kids and adults. Whatever facades they hide behind to appear holier or more righteous than the other leads to chaos and dishonesty, leaving the children hurt the most when Paulette has to be taken to the Red Cross by the police and Michel is left to throw away the crosses on the animals’ graves into the river after Dolle breaks his promise to let the girl stay in exchange for the crosses. Their childish games are over and the throwing of the crosses shows the disregard for the sacred when religion is often portrayed as hypocritical and cruel. Now that the children can’t be together, Michel won’t let the adults have the crosses back, thus making the children and the adults even in what they get for all their dishonesty and animosity towards each other. When Paulette is alone at the Red Cross, nothing the nurse can offer in comfort can help her get over the tears of separation from her friend and she is left running after a man with the name Michel, crying out, leaving the film on a heartbreaking note of a child clinging to lost passions of innocence and love.
What Forbidden Games did fairly with the characters is that it didn’t let one get too attached to most of them as we see the adults and the kids losing something of value and turning antagonistic as a result, which made it hard to find a real protagonist or antagonist. The children are slightly macabre and disturbed in how they create their cemetery and don’t care about the rift it brings in the adults and the adults likewise become controlling and dishonest with the kids in return in getting back what they’ve stolen. The only one who we can really cry for the most is Paulette because she has lost everything, first her family and her dog, now Michel and his family, which leaves her alone again and desperate for something to cling to. It will likely be a difficult childhood for her, especially with the war having five years to go during the early 40s, and we won’t know how she can regain the source of innocence in her life. The more she cries and begs she arouses tears and sympathy for her plight and we can only hope she will get better.