Movies trade in death, and always have—one of the early Lumière shorts depicts the electrocution of an elephant—but not many movies dare to actually tackle death as a subject. The rare exceptions, like Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry, tend to be portraits of people staring their own mortality in the eye, rather than examinations of the grieving process. Which is understandable, really, as only so much dramatic traction can be wreaked from people feeling sad or bereft. Directors who rely on that dynamic too heavily are likely to wind up making the most boring zombie movies of all time. What a film about mortality needs, ideally, is a protagonist incapable of fully processing death, whose grief manifests in arresting, unpredictable ways. He could be a deeply repressed obsessive, as in several great Atom Egoyan films—especially Exotica. Or, more simply, but also more disturbingly, she could just be a small child.
Six decades after Forbidden Games won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, it still has the latter category almost entirely to itself. And it remains an unusually bracing experience, if only for its willingness to deal head-on with material that few care to contemplate. We like our onscreen kids innocent or demonic, not misguided and bewildered around corpses. Set during World War II (still a recent memory at the time), the film—directed by René Clément—opens with a Nazi air raid that kills a young girl’s parents and the family dog before her eyes, which is grim enough. Taken in by another family, and befriended by their own boy of roughly the same age, the girl struggles to cope with suddenly being an orphan, using the only tool she has immediately at hand: the body of the little dog, which she refuses to give up.
Part of what’s remarkable about this scene is just the physical fact of the dog’s body, being carried about and handled by a small child. That’s clearly a real animal, not a dummy; we still don’t have the technology to make neck muscles loll that realistically. I assume it’s drugged, not actually dead, but behind-the-scenes information about this movie is scarce, even on the Criterion DVD. (There’s an interview with the actress who played the girl, Brigitte Fossey—still alive and working today—but while she discusses various techniques Clément employed to coax the performance from her, she never mentions the dog specifically.) And it really looks dead, with a touch of rigor mortis. We only see her shove dirt on the hindquarters, though, which suggests that there’s no need for a retroactive PETA protest. And it almost doesn’t matter. As a later movie would suggest, children shouldn’t play with dead things; just the sight of girl plus ostensible corpse, shown so matter-of-factly, is kinda skeevy.
Adding to the general spookiness is the presence of the owl, from which the boy filches a second corpse. Strictly speaking, its presence isn’t necessary—the dead mole could just as easily have been found in a trap, for example, and served the same narrative function. But a living creature looking on helps to underscore the dog’s (and mole’s) lifelessness, and also foreshadows the menagerie of potential dead animals that the kids will come up with as grave-buddies. The fact that it’s an owl rather than some other random predatory bird seems significant, too—there’s a sense that it understands more than the children do, but can only watch in mute sorrow. (And, again, that’s a real owl, just sitting there calmly as this kid actor sticks his hand in its nest. Even if the nest was constructed specifically for the film, as seems likely, and the owl is trained, it’s still a bit uncanny.
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What’s notably absent from this scene (and from the film as a whole) is conventional sentimentality. The girl cares for her dead dog, and is concerned about its happiness in the afterlife, but she goes about the business of burying it like a construction worker tearing up pavement, with no lamentation or hesitation. How much she comprehends about what it means for something to be dead isn’t easy to discern. It doesn’t occur to her that the dog might be lonely underground until the boy explains about cemeteries, at which point providing it with companions instantly becomes her foremost mission. And as the two of them work their way up the Great Chain Of Being, her desperation becomes more palpable, until she finally arrives at human beings with a wrenching cry that suggests she’s just belatedly made the connection between the dog and her mother and father.
Quick personal aside: I didn’t select this scene on a whim. One of my two 15-year-old cats died a couple of months ago, and the process of dealing with the body—first bringing it home from the clinic to show to the surviving cat, in the hope that she’d understand on some level what had happened (did it work? who knows?); then driving it two and a half hours to my mom’s house and digging it a grave on her property—brought these kids’ grapplings vividly to mind. Faced with the sudden absence of a cherished presence, you almost have to construct a narrative that allows you a measure of peace. I’m as hardcore a materialist as they come, and don’t believe my cat had a soul that lingers, yet I still went to the considerable trouble of burying him in a place where he’d been especially happy in life—firmly believing that he’ll never know—and avoided shoveling dirt on his head until the last possible moment. (I wasn’t as stoic as this girl, either.)
Forbidden Games shows us the same irrational thought process from the perspective of children—making it strange, ironically, by placing it in a context where it actually makes sense. If you’ve seen the film, you know that there’s a morbid odyssey to follow, but what stuck with me was this moment when the story first takes shape in their minds. The scene begins with a little girl looking for a spot to bury her dog, and ends just a few minutes later with what amounts to a homicidal mission statement, even though absolutely nothing happens in the interim. It’s a shrewd, discomfiting testament to the havoc that death plays on those left behind, all the more powerful for its rarity. Six Feet Under was fine TV, but the movies could use more ghoulishness.