An addendum to René Clemént Week.
So, finally I see Clemént’s FORBIDDEN GAMES, and on the big screen — part of Mark Cousins’ excellent Cinema of Childhood season. Unfortunately, the heating in Filmhouse 2 had broken down, so it was baltic, but th cinema compensated by offering free hot drinks and choccy biccies. With the spirit of the blitz in our minds, the substantial audience hunkered down in mufflers to absorb the audio-visual culture being fired at them in sub-zero conditions, like Eskimos listening to a tribal tale, And, since a previous ticket purchase (to INHERENT VICE) had gotten me a half-price deal for the Cinema of Childhood showings, and since I discovered an ancient, crumbling Filmhouse gift voucher at the back of my wallet, the whole experience was effectively free.
Seeing ones breath haloed in the projector beam (I exaggerate a bit for, I think you’ll agree, splendid poetic effect) reminded me of the legends of Jim Poole, Cameo manager or yore, who would turn the heating up or down to enhance tropical or arctic features. Here. the frigidity had no particular connection to the film, but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment. Sharing a little discomfort may in fact have silently bonded us, as this was one of those rare, even endangered, occasions where the presence of an audience really does enhance an experience. In particular the guy behind me who was utterly flabbergasted by each new plot development and would splutter “What the fuck?” every time the children did something shocking, was a genuinely lovely part of the experience. It’s fun to hear someone else being so into something that they spontaneously voice your own emotions.
Because the thing I hadn’t expected about the film — which deals with two children in WWII France, at the time of the nation’s fall to the Nazis — it looks at death through the eyes of a small child — is how funny it was. Funniest damn film I’ve seen in ages, actually. It’s emotional TOO — devastatingly so, but I expected that (but expecting any kind of pain is never actually a preparation for experiencing it). I didn’t know going in that I would bust a gut.
And here we learn why Truffaut hated the film, because much of the humour is anti-clerical, as with Autant-Lara’s L’AUBERGE ROUGE and others, there’s a gleefully vicious iconoclasm going on. Truffaut’s famed essay A Certain Tendency of French Cinema makes it quite clear that anti-clericalism was something the somewhat right-wing Truffaut wouldn’t tolerate, though he blurs this by claiming that what he’s objecting to is scenarists Aurenche & Bost claiming to respect the spirit of the books they adapted, while hypocritally distorting them to reflect their own depraved atheistic tendencies. It’s an objection that shouldn’t really bother any sensible adult — whether they’re evasive about it or not, the adaptors are perfectly entitled to change anything they like, and the critic can assess whether the meaning has been changed but should only condemn the film if the alteration is ineffective.
That dot on her nose is a housefly making a walk-on appearance.
Notes — this is one of the most flyblown films I’ve ever seen, with many many shots of insects alighting on the cast and set decor, more even than A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, my previous reigning champion in this category. All part of the film’s bracing attitude to national nest-fouling, in which rural life in France is persistently portrayed as squalid, brutal and filthy. Amid this muck, the bucolic characters are all still somewhat sympathetic — as in Clouzot, I found that the more vices they were shown to have, the more I regarded them as believable human representatives. We should try to love awful people, especially when they’re just in films and can’t hurt us.
Movie also guest-stars a 100-year-old owl called “the Mayor,” so what’s not to like?
Five-year-old Brigitte Fossey is terrific, but as she says in the DVD interview (I went home and watched my Criterion extras), little Georges Poujuly is also amazing. Unlike NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (which successfully bundles together a whole panoply of violently clashing thespian styles), there’s no real collision between Fossey’s actual childhood innocence and the twelve-year-old Georges’ presumably more studied performance. Their director was so committed to psychological reality he was able to bring them together in the same space.
Inevitably, unless we’re dealing with Bresson, the adults do have a slightly different performance style, and their characters are a shade closer to caricature, although it’s quite nuanced caricature. This is in keeping with the film’s decision to see the world through the children’s eyes. (I noted with approval that the kids got top billing — I was always outraged that Peter Coyote got first mention in ET. Contractual, I suppose, but mildly obscene, and quite out of keeping with the film’s stated approach.)
The irreligious comedy kicks in when the children start assembling their own graveyard, built around little Brigitte’s dead puppy (slain in a shockingly realistic bombing raid that has some viewers yelling “animal abuse!” online — it seems to be the case that the pup was merely anesthetized). Firstly, the kids are inventing their own faith, based on clues from the outer world, in much the same way as cro-magnon man may have done, and it functions as a kind of parody of “grown-up” religion. This leads to the stealing of crosses from the cemetery, which ignites the conflict between two feuding families, who now suspect each other of sacrilege. One of the funniest lines, to me, was one patriarch yelling “Vampire!” at another. Stuck for a response, he comes back with the sublimely irrelevant “Landru!”
My eyebrows shot up when I discovered the deleted opening and closing sequences on the DVD. I’ve wondered if Clemént, brilliant though he was, was a bit of a fumbler when it came to endings, and here I suspect he proves me correct. He seems to have chopped the framing structure at the last moment — possibly even after the prize-winning screening at Venice (the titles have been adjusted to accommodate mention of the award). I think they’re beautiful and make the ending even more unbearable (and it’s already super-powerful. It will fuck you up). The abruptness of the conclusion as it stands is quite effective, and when the lights come up you haven’t had a chance to compose yourself. But I don’t believe the coda planned would lessen that effect, and it makes a much more elegant outro.
I’m reminded of the story Mitchell Leisen told about his wartime weepie TO EACH HIS OWN, one of the most gloriously manipulative four-hankie jobs ever perpetrated. Leisen was actually approached by exhibitors requesting him to tack some more footage onto the end of the movie to give the audience a chance to get their shit together before the house lights went up, because people were staggering up the aisles, blinding by tears, and gashing their foreheads on columns.
Leisen refused to adjust his concussion-inducing emotional climax. Quite right.