Through a Lens Darkly
Suffer the Little Ones
"If you value your sanity," Hollywood experts say, "don't make movies about kids."
The logistical complexity of directing children renders such conventional wisdom self-explanatory. But there is another unrecognized yet equally compelling reason for the adage: Adults are terrible at remembering what it was like to be a child.
The majority of movies about children say far more about their adult creators than their supposed subjects. Simultaneously naïve—a trait we adults often confuse with innocence—and unconvincingly sarcastic, the kids that populate most films are more like mini-adults than children; an unconvincing reflection of what we think we were like in our youth, rather than an accurate representation of reality.
The cloying-yet-cynical youngsters that mar so many cinematic offerings make those few instances where the uniqueness of childhood is accurately captured even more noteworthy. French director René Clément's Oscar-winning feature Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits) is a particularly striking example—a film that explores the fascinating region between childlike innocence and a more self-aware, self-assured adolescence.
In the film's wrenching opening moments, young Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) loses both her parents when their convoy of refugees, fleeing Paris before the advancing Nazi invaders, falls prey to a Stuka strafing attack. Bewildered by their inexplicable absence, Paulette flees the scene, seemingly more concerned about the loss of her beloved puppy than her parents' death. As she wanders aimlessly through the French countryside, a chance encounter with a local peasant boy, Michel (Georges Poujouly), offers her an emotional lifeline, and she is taken in by the Dollés, a poor, hard-working farming family whose lives could hardly be further from Paulette's Parisian upbringing.
During her time in the Dollé household, Paulette struggles to cope with her loss—an attempt made profoundly more difficult by her parents' obvious lack of religion and the young girl's corresponding lack of any spiritual lens through which to view her life's shocking events. Here again, Michel comes to her aid, offering her the comforting, somewhat confused spirituality so unique to young children. Unsurprisingly, Paulette is drawn to the symbolism of the crucifix—"You've never seen him?" "Yes, but I never knew who he was"—and the two set out on a peculiar mission: gathering up the villages crosses to use in their newly-christened animal cemetery, whose first occupant is Paulette's pet dog, Jock.
Their unusual actions, misunderstood by the local villagers, add fuel to an ongoing feud between the Dollés and their neighbors, the Gouards, and accusations begin to fly with ever-increasing viciousness. When the children "borrow" the cross from the grave of a recently-deceased Dollé, tensions reach a boiling point, culminating in an absurd brawl through the village graveyard. With the help of a local priest, Michel is identified as the culprit, but the arrival of the local gendarmes as they search for Paulette throws everyone into disarray. In a desperate attempt to keep his young friend with him, Michel reveals the location of the lost crosses, but to no avail. Paulette's future lies elsewhere.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.