- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

“Battle of the Rails,” the first feature directed by Rene Clement (1913-1996), was a semi-documentary thriller shot in the immediate aftermath of World War II and calibrated for patriotic affirmation. Expanded from a short film about railway personnel that Mr. Clement had made during the war, the feature celebrated the clandestine efforts of rail system workers and managers (played by non-professionals) to aid the French Resistance, with methods that ranged from delay and subterfuge to sabotage and actual combat.

Like the better-known Roberto Rossellini movies “Open City” and “Paisan,” Mr. Clement’s saga draws on the final stages of the war for dramatic inspiration and immediacy. Unlike them, “Battle” concludes with a rhetorical flourish that seems to compress a final year of struggle into a triumphant pictorial scherzo. A mission to divert a German convoy bound for Normandy proves successful and cues a full-steam-ahead train ride for jubilant Resistance fighters, metaphorically bound for total victory.

The film won two awards at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946, including best direction for Mr. Clement. In the early 1950s he returned to the war as an ominously evocative historical backdrop but shifted the emphasis radically. “Forbidden Games,” generally regarded as his greatest movie, met some initial resistance in France, but it became a multiple prize-winner at the Venice Film Festival and a major international hit.

Here we encounter a defeated France in June 1940, perceived mostly through the disarming, eerie responses of two children who bond briefly and passionately in the aftermath of calamity.

A 5-year-old girl named Paulette (Brigitte Fossey, a pretty and precocious discovery) is orphaned when her parents, refugees from Paris, are killed by German planes strafing a civilian convoy on a country road. Those mortal wounds, taken in the small of their backs as Paulette’s father and mother seek cover on a bridge, remain exceptionally painful and shocking as simulated death blows.

The exquisite little girl flees from the other survivors in pursuit of her pet dog, who has also been killed — and heaved into a shallow river by another refugee. Wandering into a deceptively picturesque countryside, Paulette is found by a protective country boy of 11 named Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly), the youngest son of a nearby farm family.

War was depicted as a grave and costly business in “Battle,” but it was a great unifier for the principal characters, a scantily dramatized collection of stealthy armed men and sympathetic railway employees whose solidarity is a given and transcendent virtue. Social estrangement in serene, homely surroundings is the norm in “Forbidden Games.”

Solidarity takes an early beating: Paulette’s parents are abandoned by fellow refugees even before the Germans mow them down. Their car stalls and gets shoved off the road by irate, impatient travelers, whose rate of advance is pretty much nil under the circumstances. When Michel brings Paulette home, his father’s first response is, “What am I going to do with her?” Only the suggestion that she be palmed off on their neighbors, the Gouards, changes his mind. A long-standing feud exists between the two households, and Papa Dolle is loath to give any Gouard the satisfaction of charitable bragging rights.

We learn that Paulette’s parents are among 17 persons killed in the attack, but the rest of the movie revolves around a macabre form of consolation devised by the children after retrieving and burying the girl’s pet dog. They collaborate on a private animal cemetery in a tumbledown mill, interring other tiny creatures to keep the original occupant company, then improvising or stealing crosses to mark the grave sites.

The discovery of this obsession is destined to scandalize the adults and terminate the budding friendship of Paulette and Michel. But the unfolding of their secret “game” puts conventional pieties to a memorably sardonic and disconcerting test. After all, five years of war are in the offing. Casualties are still a rarity in this farm region, but the 17 victims on the road are a small foretaste of intrusion and destruction.

What constitutes an adequate response to sudden death? Should it differ for kin and strangers? Death also comes in a sneaky form to Michel’s older brother Georges, who suffers internal injuries when kicked by a horse. None of the losses sink in to an extent that might overpower ordinary preoccupations, from farm chores to a feud with the neighbors. If wartime solidarity is essential to victory, it’s a far-off goal in the setting of “Forbidden Games.”

The traditional forms of consolation, represented by Catholic prayers and ceremonies that are all new and exotic to Paulette, an angelic infidel, look rather more futile than the rites spontaneously invented by the children in their private graveyard. They’re prone to overindulge these inventions. In “Games,” childish “innocence” is always complicated by a perverse playfulness and amorality. This uniquely distinguishing feature of the movie probably accounts for some of the hostility it provoked when first seen. Crosses become so desirable to the kids that they “window-shop” in the local cemetery. Paulette even casts covetous eyes on the crosses embroidered on the cassock of the village priest.

Movies depict a lot of death, but they’re rarely as tough-minded about the phenomenon as are Mr. Clement and his collaborators. The supplements in the DVD edition include an abandoned prologue and epilogue that might have earned them further accusations of heartlessness. The juvenile leads are placed in a sylvan locale and pretend to be reading a storybook that incorporates the movie — insincerely implying that it’s “just a story” and needn’t be taken to heart. This suggestion could have outraged moviegoers moments after the wrenching fadeout, which strands Paulette anew.

The DVD also retrieves three interview segments with Mr. Clement and Miss Fossey, whose beauty remained awesome at 21 and 55. The conversation taped in 2001 is also the more revealing. Miss Fossey’s recall of the production seems phenomenal, and her remark that Paulette sometimes resembles a miniature Lady Macbeth is a pip.

She also puts her juvenile fame in perspective by describing the response she got from classmates after returning from the Venice Film Festival as princess-elect of the movie kingdom: the other girls ganged up to stomp on her new white boots with muddy footwear of their own.

TITLE: “Battle of the Rails” (“La Bataille du Rail”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1946, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional depictions of wartime violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Rene Clement. Screenplay by Mr. Clement and Colette Audry. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

DVD EDITION: Facets Video

WEB SITE: www.facets.com

TITLE: “Forbidden Games” (“Jeux interdits”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1952; adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and violence; morbid thematic aspects)

CREDITS: Directed by Rene Clement. Screenplay by Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Francois Boyer and Mr. Clement, based on the novel “The Secret Game” by Mr. Boyer. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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