It's World War II in France and a group of refugees is crossing a bridge when the Nazis launch an air attack on them. Amongst the crowd is a young girl, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey). Her parents are killed, and she is taken in by a local farmer. There she befriends Michel (Georges Poujouly), the farmer's eleven-year-old son and the two children try to come to terms with what is happening in the world around them and to understand the reality of death. They create a small cemetery for the animals they see die around them. But when they take to stealing crosses from the local church for use in their cemetery, the adult world intervenes...
StudioCanal have released four films on DVD (one of them also on Blu-ray) to mark the centenary of René Clément (1913-1996), a director whose reputation was at its peak in the 1950s. With the breaking of the French New Wave, Clément fell out of fashion, being regarded as an exponent of what New Wavers scornfully referred to as “Le cinéma du Papa”. He continued to make films into the 1970s and the four films range from 1953's Jeux interdits, the point where his critical standing peaked, up to his penultimate film, made in 1971. For a more detailed overview of Clément's career, I refer you to my colleague Anthony Nield's piece here. I will be reviewing the discs in chronological order.
The publicity for StudioCanal's releases calls Clément “the French Hitchcock”, and he was certainly a devotee of the Master of Suspense, though as we shall see, many of his best films are the least Hitchcockian. One clear similarity between them, though, is that both worked squarely in commercial cinema, operating in recognisable genres and often with major stars involved. Such an approach can result in glossy anonymity and some of Clément's later work (which I haven't seen in some cases) has that reputation. You can certainly scour both men's work for personal touches and angles, but in Martin Scorsese's term they would be “smuggled” in behind a genre mask.
Clément began his directing career with shorts and documentaries in the 1930s, making his feature debut with La bataille du rail in 1946, winner of three prizes at that year's Cannes Festival, including Best Director for Clément. In 1951 Le mura di Malapaga (1949), all but forgotten now, won an Honorary Oscar for the best foreign-language film In 1952 he made Jeux interdits (known in English as Forbidden Games), which the following year won the same Oscar, making Clément the first non-English-speaking director to win two Oscars. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film from Any Source and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Quite rightly so: it is one of the great cinematic explorations of childhood and Brigitte Fossey, five at the time, gives one of the finest performances by a young child in the cinema. It's rivalled by Victoire Thivisol, a year younger in a film made forty-four years later, Ponette, also a study of a very young girl trying to come to terms with death. The similarity of the characters' names (Paulette/Ponette) is I doubt a coincidence. With a child this young, you have to wonder how much of her performance is due to her and how much to the director. While it's very clear that Clément showed exceptional sensitivity in directing her, you sense that it isn't all down to him, and Fossey is giving a genuine, deeply-felt performance. Importantly she never seems unnatural, unlike those in other films who simply come across as and have no doubt been written and directed to be irksomely precocious.
In any other film, Georges Poujouly would have received plenty of kudos for his performance. He was a busy child actor, his earnings helping to support his family, of which he was one of fourteen children. Both he and Fossey went on to adult acting careers. Fossey is still with us; Poujouly died in 2000 at the age of sixty. The actors playing Paulette's parents in the opening scene are Fossey's real parents.
Jeux interdits is based on a novel by François Boyer. It was adapted by the long-established writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, plus Clément, with Boyer given a dialogue credit. Clément at first intended Jeux interdits as a short film, perhaps to form part of a portmanteau picture. However his friend, Jacques Tati, persuaded him that the story should be a feature. However, they faced a problem, namely that his two young leads were in school and were unavailable. Filming recommenced the following Easter and Clément had the task of disguising the fact that both children had grown a few inches in the meantime. Fossey had lost some milk teeth and Poujouly had had his hair cut for a role in another film he had made in between, so these were hidden by means of false teeth and a wig in certain scenes.
Jeux interdits is one of the cinema's great films about children. But it is not a film for children and the ending is heartrending. It gained an X certificate (restricting audiences then to the over-sixteens) on its original UK cinema release and nowadays still earns a 12. While Clément's reputation went into decline in his lifetime, this film always was an exception to that. Its release on Blu-ray and DVD is very welcome.
Forbidden Games is released by StudioCanal in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, encoded for Region B and Region 2 respectively. The Blu-ray is the one supplied for review and affiliate links refer to that edition. For those for the DVD, go here..
The disc begins with three language options, English, French and German, which take you to copyright notices and menus (and in the case of the French and German options, an extra distribution ident after the StudioCanal one) in the appropriate languages.
1953 was a year before CinemaScope arrived and Jeux interdits was filmed in the old Academy Ratio of 1.37:1. That is how it is transferred to Blu-ray. The results are very good, with contrast – vital in a black-and-white film - looking spot on and grain looking natural to these eyes. Some definition is lost in longer shots and the Blu-ray does expose the extra graininess of some stock footage (the Nazi aircraft in the opening sequence). I've not seen this film in a cinema – I first saw it on Channel 4 nearly thirty years ago – but this is pretty much how 50s monochrome films that I've seen do look.
The soundtrack is the original mono, in DTS-HD MA. The film is entirely in the French language and that's the track I listened to, but if you wish there is a German-dubbed alternative. Subtitles are available in English, German and a French hard-of-hearing option, and are white in colour.
There are two extras on this disc. First is a French-made documentary, “Amours enfantines sous l'occupation” (“Stories of Innocence Under Occupation”, 30:40). This tells of the making of the film, including sight of original production documents and input from Clément expert Denitza Bancheva and Laurence Badie, who played Berthe in the film. Inevitably, Brigitte Fossey dominates this piece, with much of the time given over to her interview, but she's very informative about a film she clearly has strong memories of, despite her very young age at the time. Off set, she reveals, they did behave much as real children would likely do, with the six-year age gap being very apparent and Poujouly being patronising and bossy towards her.
The second item is an alternative, or rather extended, opening and ending (6:19) and a perfect example that first thoughts are not always best thoughts. This takes the form of Paulette being told a story by an older child (not played by Poujouly). This then segues into the turning-book-pages opening credits that the film still has and Jeux interdits as we know it begins. At the end, we return to a tearful Paulette who insists that “stories are true”. This is a twee and sentimental prologue and coda to a notably unsentimental film. I'm glad it was junked but it's fascinating to see it here.