#239. Forbidden Games (1952)

One of the themes I’ve always come up against in different kinds of art but never really related to, nor even the way it’s just invoked in conversation, is the idea of “innocence,” particularly as it pertains to children, and even though I have a foggy idea of what’s being referred to (the innocence of looking at situations without the nuances of racial, sexual, political, monetary, prejudicial or ideological nuance) I’ve just never really…gotten it. This movie, Forbidden Games, is I think the first piece of art to ever really open my eyes to what innocence mean and I think the reason it’s so resonant is because it’s revealing something to me about my own creative process.

           The framework for the story is that the Nazis are invading France. During the exodus of Parisians going elsewhere, I guess mostly out into the country, a little girl named Paulette (Brigitte Fossey—who was about seven years old at the time but seems to be playing a five-year-old) is made to wander out into the fields after her parents are murdered on a bridge. She’s carrying a dead puppy (which looks very much like a dead puppy).

           Wandering in the woods, she meets a slightly older boy, named Michelle (Georges Poujouly). Michelle gets her to relinquish the dog, leave it in the woods, and then brings Paulette home with him. His family, cluttered into a farmhouse, takes her in. Cares for her.

Brigitte Fossey in René Clément’s FORBIDDEN GAMES (1952). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal

            The “forbidden games” to which the title refers is this thing that doesn’t seem so much like a game as a project: the two kids start making a cemetery. They put dead rodents and insects in it. Make little crosses that they stab into the dirt. They start mimicking adult customs of mourning and ceremony.

            And it’s innocent.

            They aren’t actually grieving for these little creatures.

            Except they are grieving. Especially Paulette—she just doesn’t know it. I’m hardly equipped to psychoanalyze anyone but it doesn’t seem like a leap to say that, while she isn’t consciously grieving her parents’ murder, there’s part of her that’s registering the loss and that’s exorcising it by practicing, if only by rote, the rituals she sees other people practicing when they lose somebody.

            And I think I’m doing something similar when I’m writing fiction. Maybe even writing these blog posts.

           I’ve kinda moved past my interest in Chuck Palahniuk’s work (author, most famously, of Fight Club) but I think he’s a cool dude, really smart and intense, and he just served as one of the most interesting guests on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast a couple of weeks ago where, on top of mentioning with the utmost candor and confidence that he knows he writes books for people who don’t normally read books (thereby attesting, I guess, to what lots of readers see as the books’ juvenalia), and but he was riffing on something that a writing teacher had told him about the healing or cathartic powers of writing fiction and he boiled it down to a simple explanation.

Everybody knows that art is cathartic. But what he points out about the healing powers of writing is that, when you’re putting some of your pain down on the page, you’re spending so much time with it, you’re looking at it from so many different angles, you’re being so cerebral and so emotional with it for such a long time, that you end up kind of exhausting your capacity to react to it. It’s almost like the way you can only force yourself to laugh at your dad’s same joke so many times.

            When I’m writing about something that I’m obsessing over, I’m exer/exorcising that obsession so that I can maybe someday get over it—and, having digested the subject of that obsession, I can bring a new degree of insight, a new frame of reference, to my next obsession.

            I really enjoyed my experience with Forbidden Games, both in and around the movie, because on top of watching it and feeling like I’ve finally found a piece of art having to do with that idea of “the loss of innocence” that rang a bell with me, I was also kinda blown away by some of the supplementary material on the Criterion disc. Mainly a video interview with director Rene Clement.

            Asked about his movie, and why it’s not so beloved in France, he says that the French don’t understand him because they speak the same language. Says “it’s like trying to study a color under a light of the same color.”

            Fucking fascinating.

            Like this book I just wrote, Cubatooth Camgirl: there are elements of it that are obviously taken from my life, certain characters modeled after people in my life that friends and relatives know quite well. If that’s the case then will they be somewhat disadvantaged in reading the final product? Will the real-life seeds of various elements get in the way of their appreciation of the story?

            Maybe so.

            On the other hand: it might help them to understand the author. And if you understand the author, and what he’s made of his pain or obsession or whatever, then perhaps that can be just as instructive and interesting as a good story.

            Also: I’ve mentioned a few times how, when working on a long piece of fiction or critical writing, I feel like I’m tiptoeing through a house that’s crowded with homeowners who might spring outta bed and catch me robbing them at any minute. Clement’s got a better way of putting it. He talks about how the making of a film is kinda like trying to lift an invalid out of a chair or bed and bring them to their feet. You’re being extra careful not to hurt them because they’re already so delicate. By extension, you also can only kinda pray that they’ll be able to stand once you’ve pulled them all the way up.

            Anyway, yeah, this movie, as my roommate says, “fucks,” and it’ll hit you in the chest if you’re the kinda person—I figure there are many—who are extra sensitive to the sorts of coming-of-age story where, kinda like in My Girl, a little-little kid has to confront some harsh reality of life.

            It’s a doozie.

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