The movie sets itself up at the outset as the story of a cherubic little girl, an older boy, and a world turned upside-down by war. I braced myself for Grave of the Fireflies redux (or, given that GotF came our 36 years later, pre-dux?), except this time with actual human child actors instead of awkwardly overdubbed anime. But it turns out that Clément had something else in mind, fortunately.
Despite being set during the Battle of France in WWII, Jeux Interdits is neither a war film nor an anti-war film, not really. It’s a meditation on the “innocence” (scare quotes very much intended) of childhood, and the war provides a specific pretext for a young city girl to be orphaned in the bloody chaos of Parisians fleeing the city in advance of German bombers, and subsequently adopted by a country family when she wanders their way. The same air raid wreaking havoc on the evacuations sets off another chain of events, by which a horse and cart are set loose, running wild across the country family’s small farm, which leads to the oldest son suffering a fatal wound when he tries to grab the horse and is viciously kicked for his trouble. All of this assembles the necessary narrative elements for children to be confronted with death and grapple with it in their own way, and it could have been accomplished in different ways not involving a war at all. Perhaps this was deliberate on Clément's part (or on the part of François Boyer, who wrote the original novel on which the film was based), taking the opportunity to point out in passing that war is a mindless beast, a frightened horse dragging a broken cart which kills wantonly and pointlessly, before moving on to the real business at hand.
Two elements of the film struck me in particular, the first being how modern in spirit the depiction of the children was. Paulette, who is five, and Michel, ten, are truly the main characters of the movie, and they’re not treated as moppets. They have inner lives, mostly defined by pain and confusion and frustration (hence, as I alluded to above, not exactly as innocent as most people’s default assumptions about the idylls of childhood may be). Death is arguably the hardest facet of reality for anyone to grapple with, even as an adult with a reasonably full lifetime of experience and wisdom to draw on. For children, it’s almost impossible, especially when the adults around them are too all-consumed by petty feuds with the neighbors to offer any guidance. Paulette doesn’t have any innate belief that her slain parents (or the dead puppy she carries into the country as a proxy totem of her loss) are at peace or in a better place, and no one steps up to enlighten (or delude) her. She’s forced to create her own philosophy built on leaps of child-logic, trying to assemble an animal cemetery around her puppy’s grave because the more dead things there are in the ground, the less lonely the puppy will be. And the graves have to be marked by crosses, not because Paulette really understands what they mean, but because she thinks they’re pretty.
Paulette’s attempts to surmount and define at least the concept of death are by turns amusingly adorable and fairly horrifying, noble and selfish, but the upshot is that they are happening in a vacuum. Children are capable of feeling grief, but not necessarily managing it well (or at all), not without the intervention of a responsible adult. Sadly for Paulette, there are no responsible adults to be found, only a smitten little boy all too willing to enable her macabre whims.
The other point of fascination for me in Jeux Interdits is in its portrayal of Catholicism, again mostly from a child’s perspective. It seems reasonable enough to posit that knowledge of our own mortality is one of the key factors in recognizing the spiritual dimensions to our lives, and that religion is a coping mechanism for death. In a time of loss, the Church should be a place of refuge and aid in making sense of the senseless. But of course it’s not so simple. early on in the movie the local priest asks Paulette if she knows how to pray, she says no, and the priest assures her that Michel can teach her because he knows his catechism very well. What this turns out to mean is that Michel has dutifully memorized the standard sacramental prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and he can perform rote recitations of them on command. But the words have very little meaning to him; he spits them out like a speedrun through the state capitals, sometimes (hilariously) accidentally mashing up two separate prayers, because he’s resentful that he can’t just sit and eat dinner. I do feel it’s important to note that the priest is actually a very sympathetic character, not some corrupt or hypocritical indictment of the clergy. But at the same time, the institutional stance of the Church toward children seems to at least be poked at somewhat, as the movie shows how children can be indoctrinated in superficial ways without really internalizing any particular spiritual enlightenment.
All in all it’s a thought-provoking movie, not about the avoidable tragedy of war but rather the unavoidable sadness in recognizing that nothing, not even childhood, is simple.