That's the question posed by Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits), René Clement's 1952 chef-d'oeuvre, based on a novel by Francois Boyer. The brutality of military conflict is rammed home in a bitterly graphic opening sequence – terrified civilians swarming out of Paris in the summer of 1940, only to be strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe. In the carnage, five-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) becomes an orphan. Clinging with fierce attachment to her dead puppy, Jock, she wanders away from the road and suddenly finds herself in an idyllic countryside seemingly unchanged by the march of events in the world beyond.
The Dollés, a family of peasant farmers, give her a rough and ready home. It soon becomes apparent that rural life has more than its fair share of bickering, territoriality and selfishness (the Dollés are engaged in a long-running feud with their neighbours, the Gouards). But there's also kindness, and a saviour for Paulette in the shape of the Dollés' youngest son, 10-year-old Michel (Georges Poujouly), a clever boy who lavishes the same sort of affection on her that she showed to Jock.
But Paulette is still worried about death, and about what happens to dead bodies, the way they seem to be treated as just so much rubbish. When Michel's elder brother succumbs to a kick in the stomach from a horse (despite the elder Dollés' bungling attempts to treat his internal bleeding with a laxative), she asks, “Your brother's dead? Will you dig him a hole?” The question's uppermost in her mind, because a hole is where her parents have ended up, bundled into a mass grave. Determined that at least her beloved Jock will be treated with more dignity, she sets about creating a cemetery for him within the picturesque ruins of an abandoned mill.
It's the start of an obsession. Michel borrows a dead mole from an owl to add to the cemetery, so Jock won't be by himself, and he's soon casting around for other possible candidates for their vitally-challenged menagerie. Paulette, meanwhile, is eyeing up the crosses in the local church and picturing all the weird and wonderful animals they could be used to commemorate (a tall, thin cross makes her think of a giraffe).
This is a film with all kinds of outstanding virtues. Brilliant acting from the ensemble cast. Magical black-and-white cinematography. A script that makes its points with Gallic crispness and wit. But its special effectiveness lies in the contrast between the adorable duo, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed innocence, and the dark, morbid undertones of their ever-more-elaborate hobby. The point being, these aren't your typical, Hollywood-style bad-from-the-womb scary kids. No, they're a pair of normal youngsters whose immature brains are struggling to wrap themselves around a world gone mad.
Clement charms intense, heartfelt performances from both of the child stars (repeat, five years old in Fossey's case!); and not only that, he even manages to get the Dollé's various farm animals to mill in and out of frame with the timing of old pros (although apparently he was nearly brought to tears by a cockroach which had absolutely no conception of hitting its mark). Largely thanks to his skill and sensitivity, Forbidden Games is almost without peer in cinema as an evocation of the juvenile mind. It's also a profound, literally worm's eye take on the trauma of war.
The transfer is immaculate on the DVD version we saw, with Robert Juillard's lyrical cinematography sparkling like a new penny, and it's reasonable to assume that the Blu-ray release will be even more lustrous. Also present are an alt beginning and ending so unbelievably lame it brings you out in a sweat to even imagine them being considered for use, and an excellent accompanying doc, with Fossey figuring prominently and looking just as angelic now as she did back then. René Clement's reputation went into something of a hole after the making of this film, but hopefully its reappearance in high-def will reassert his right to be considered one of the masters of French cinema.