*This post is part of Nathaniel’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series.
In an attempt to finish this post in time for this week’s Best Shot episode, I really had to rush the write-up, which is unfortunate, because Rene Clement’s hard-hitting masterpiece deserves much, much more attention. I hadn’t seen this rarely discussed, early winner of the best foreign language film Oscar since my francophone grandpa showed it to me as a kid. I remembered next to nothing about it and I was so immersed that for long stretches of its run time I completely forgot I was watching it to pick a favorite shot. It washed over me and touched me in a way few films have ever done; and though I tried my very best to hold it in me for fear of embarrassing myself in public – I was watching the film in the quietude of University of Toronto’s library, where I’d borrowed the DVD – that exquisite final shot of Brigitte Fossey finally brought me down to tears.
Forbidden Games isn’t necessarily a film that strikes the viewer as a visual triumph. Although there are frame-worthy moments in its low key lit, chiaroscuro compositions, its charms are not quite the product of decorated designs or cinematographic tricks, but of the fragile, often intangible, beauty of human interaction. Clement’s story delicately shows the best and worst in all of us and the shots that subtly imply truths in those moments are the best in the film: that of an abusive father versus the innocence of children’s affections for one another, the secret, passionate love affair between neighboring youngsters versus their parents’ equally impassioned, tribal disdain for each other, the horrors of war versus the tenderness of motherly care.
In the end, my favorite shot in the film came down to two options. First was the aforementioned final shot of the film, but that’s almost too perfect, too obvious a choice. So I’m settling for one of the moments that really struck out to me early in the film. Paulette, the film’s young heroine, has just lost both her parents to an air strike by German forces. She’s carrying her wounded dog with her when she’s found by a fleeing woman whose overloaded carriage can barely fit an extra person on. She looks at the little girl’s dog, noticing that he has already died and asks Paulette to toss it away before getting on. Paulette, who still hasn’t quite grasped the gravity of her parents’ death, looks at the woman in utter disbelief, then looks back at the immobile dog and asks “He’s dead?” Seconds later, the old woman takes the dog out of her hands and throws it over the bridge into the running river; it’s almost as if she’s been stripped completely of her sense of compassion by the brutality of war. It’s a shot that encapsulates, in one brief moment, the extent of all the little girl’s troubles to come.
Paulette is taken aback, enough to jump off the carriage and follow her dog along the river – and start the film’s narrative in the process – but she’s still almost too distraught to actually feel emotions. Fossey maintains that sort of ambiguous, on-edge expressiveness throughout the film. Her performance miraculously manages to walk the fine line – or rather, create a fine line – between childish, carefree bliss and grave grief, as if she’s young enough to forget her pains quickly but also old enough to rationally comprehend death and be cerebral about it.