“June, 1940” announces the screen showing German planes strafing and bombing the streams of refugees fleeing Paris. A father, mother, and little girl Paulette (five-year-old Brigitte Fossey) run across a bridge as a plane machine-guns them. The father and mother are killed, also the little girl’s dog. Over their bodies a sign advertises a pair of magicians: “Maîtres du Mystère,” masters of mystery. Paulette is about to leave this world of horror and enter quite a different world.
Another refugee tosses the dead dog off the bridge and into a stream. The little girl follows and retrieves it. Eventually a cowherd Michel (eleven-year-old Georges Poujouly) finds her and takes her back to his peasant family, the Dollés and their wretched farmhouse. But even before he and Paulette get through the door we learn of the Dollés’ feud with their next-door neighbors, the Gouards. Apparently the Gouards got a medal for saving the life of the Dollé grandmother, and the Dollé father (Lucien Hubert) thinks that somehow did his family a wrong.
The Dollé family consists of a father, mother (Suzanne Courtal), a daughter Berthe (Laurence Badie), a younger daughter (Violette Monnier), a retarded son Raymond (Pierre Mérovée), and a capable son Georges (Jacques Marin) who has been kicked in the gut by a horse and now lies in bed and in pain.
To this family the war is a newspaper story, and their annoyance that the Gouards’ son Francis (Amédée) gets written up. The family is amazed that Paulette does not know the meaning of the crucifix (”our dear Lord”) over Georges’ bed. Raymond and Georges are delighted with a homburg hat left by the fleeing Parisians. Georges glumly watches a moth incinerate itself (presaging his own death). Raymond busies himself making a toy airplane. Francis Gouard toots his bugle and tells war stories to justify his desertion. Georges doesn’t want to hear about the war; he wants to hear the serial novel in the newspaper. Pervading the film and structuring both families is the Code Napoléon that established the two fathers as lords and masters. What matters to these people are symbols.
In short, Paulette (and Francis) have left a world of real death and real horror. (I have read that World War II was the first war in which the intentional killing of civilians became an accepted tactic.) Paulette has lost her identity (her family name). She has crossed over via a bridge and mystère from a historically and painfully real world to a world in which people care less about reality than about symbols and fictions. They care in particular about religious symbols: the crucifix; the priest trying to teach Paulette signs and prayers; the garbled prayers over Georges’ body; the many symbols at the mass for George; the priest’s admonition to Berthe about sex with Francis; above all, the crosses that Michel succeeds or fails in stealing and incorporating in his “cemetery.” He looks at it with pride and eats an apple—surely a symbolic gesture if there ever was one.
The final brutal fight between Michel and his father concerns symbols, those fourteen crosses from the village cemetery, and it leads the tyrannical father to send Paulette back to that other world of real loss and real pain.
Read this way, through Paulette’s fate, Clément’s award-winning Forbidden Games sharply criticizes religious people’s preoccupation with symbols, especially of death. Such symbols are, as he portrays them, an unreal substitute for real love and a poor counter to the real horror of war. Indeed, this focus on symbols is a willing ally to war, for this preoccupation leads to fury and fights over those same symbols.
Clément owes his film’s success, not to some such “message,” though, but to the charming performances of the two child actors (and the peasant characters as well) plus the fine cinematography of Robert Juillard and the famous guitar music of Narciso Yepes. Yepes is playing a tune that hearers identify as an old ballad of their country—whatever country that might be. So too the idea that unifies the film (at least as I read it) applies to any country you might name. Care about the real, not the symbol.