On Being Paulette

By Dai Vaughan

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The death is that of Paulette’s parents, killed when their refugee column is strafed by Nazi aircraft. Paulette, who is little more than a toddler, displays only a disinterested curiosity towards her parents’ immobility - though she seems at least to understand that they will not walk again. She clings instead to her dying and soon-to-be-dead puppy. We may feel, if we so wish, that the puppy is itself a ‘child’ and that its death is a magical substitute for Paulette’s own. In any event, the puppy, sole remnant of her former family life, serves to carry the moment of death into a new environment, the rural family who will take care of her; and the cross raised over the puppy’s grave becomes the repository of this symbolism, which will grow and proliferate in a secret private cemetery. Only at the end, with her separation from her adoptive family, will Paulette experience the desolation of grief. The accumulation of crosses, for all its morose appropriateness, serves essentially to expand the instant between an event and its outcome. This short interregnum, scarcely a paradise, may be taken as a metaphor for the brevity of all childhood.

What gives structure to this suspended moment? What guides us into and through it? One answer, and a somewhat surprising one, would be that the film reveals the traditional lineaments of a ‘doomed love’ story - the incongruousness of this accentuating the innocence conventionally coded in childhood. The ‘lover’ in this scenario is Michel, youngest of the country family, who first encounters Paulette and takes her home. His attentiveness to her, his jealous embarrassment in a goodnight kissing scene, her occasional mild coquetries and his remarks, ‘You’re hard to please,’ all conform to this tradition. When Paulette is finally abandoned in a transit camp, it is an offscreen voice calling ‘Michel!’ which raises a last flicker of hope: a hope dashed by the discovery that it heralds only the embrace of two adults, strangers. A nun remarks that Paulette has at last told them her surname, and we tilt down to see ‘Dollé’ on her label: the name of Michel’s family. In terms of the ‘doomed love’ theme, this carries the suggestion of a conscious choice, an identification, even a symbolic marriage, though the more reasonable interpretation is that she may have forgotten, or may indeed never have known, her true name. In any event, she has unwittingly made it well nigh impossible that any surviving members of her own family should now succeed in locating her. She must begin again, belonging only to herself.

The love story is not, however, the only genre whose structuring conventions are brought into play in this narrative. There is also, for example, the fairy tale. We have already hinted at a magical substitution of the puppy’s death for Paulette’s own; but there is something more explicit. Paulette is accompanied, from the highway to the farm, not by one animal but by two: the second being a runaway horse with a broken cart. And where the attack on the refugees has been edited with something of the raggedness of an action news report, the transition to the farm takes the form of a symbolic montage unlike anything else in the film. Paulette’s attempt to recover her puppy from the river, where a woman has thrown it, is cross-cut with the bolting horse and with a solitary Stuka which shadows it like a malign angel to the moment when it reaches the farmyard. Michel’s mother shrieks that it is ‘un cheval de la guerre,’ and will bring misfortune. An elder brother tries to unhitch the cart; and in doing so he receives an injury from which he will eventually die. Meanwhile, Paulette’s relation with the waterborne puppy has been set in apposition to the Stuka’s relation with the horse: whether for identity or for contrast we cannot yet tell; but in either case she has taken death into the farm by narrative magic.

We see Michel kill a beetle; and, when Paulette protests, he counters, ‘It was a bomb that did it.’ Later, when there is a strong suggestion that he has killed chicks to provide tenants for her graveyard, we begin to wonder whether we ought not to be reading this as horror - more specifically that sub-genre of horror, typified by The Turn of the Screw, which takes children as its agents. Perhaps they will graduate to human burials. In keeping with Paulette’s symbolic ambiguity, her demands for corpses are balanced by a moral revulsion against killing; but the hint has nonetheless been planted.

At yet other times the conventions of black comedy are invoked, as with the garbled prayers at the brother’s deathbed or the cut to his laid-out body from a neighbour blowing a trumpet (Will he rise?); or of a Tom Sawyer prankishness; or of a Pagnol-style celebration of rural mores and feuding. Much of the distinctive ‘feel’ of Jeux interdits derives from the fact that none of these genres quite satisfies the narrative, and from our recognition of the aptness of this.

In the opening sequence the characters are scarcely individualised. Even Paulette receives only a brief emphasis as she retrieves the puppy from a car: a moment quite in keeping with the newsreel idiom (though the precise nature of the cut to her, action-matched, is perhaps not). Again, after the close-up where she touches her dead mother’s face, Paulette is once more absorbed into the mêlée; and her progress to the farm is given in long-shots so insistent in their withdrawal as to suggest a rite de passage into some unfamiliar state. That the parents before their deaths are scarcely distinguished from the other refugees is not just a device whereby they may be presented as already virtually forgotten, or whereby the farm may be portrayed in contrast as a realm of magical clarity, or whereby the ending may be perceived as a symmetrical return to anonymity mitigated only by a cardboard label. Its function is also to deny us, the audience, any privileged adult perception of Paulette as possessing a pre-given social identity: the social equivalent of that knowingness which, in narrative, makes genre readings possible. Other than the clothes she stands up in, and a few city mannerisms, Paulette has nothing. She is the tabula rasa which, even if we do not romantically posit it as the state of childhood, most of us secretly feel to be that of our own.

Jeux interdits dramatises a consciousness unformed. Paulette knows verbally that her parents are dead (for she says so to Michel); but she does not ‘know’ this in the language of concrete social behaviour. Partly because of the persistence of a musical theme strongly identified with her, we are never in any doubt that Paulette is the film’s central figure; and it is therefore surprising to note that, once we are at the farm, Michel has more screen time to himself than she does, as if he were somehow a proxy consciousness standing in for her lapses of presence. The most striking example of this is the scene in the mill where, as the music reaches its fullest expression, we are shown the secret cemetery in its most completed form. We do not immediately discover that Michel is present. I had, after first viewing, remembered it as a scene in which no-one appeared. But even our erroneous recollections form part of a film’s totality; and this particular error respected the fact that Paulette will never see the cemetery in this final state at all. Yet it is in this scene, more truly than in any where she is present, that we share in the identity of Paulette, since it represents the embodiment of her experience as she has represented it to herself: in the language she has found for it, made for it. When the conventions of genre have been discarded like ill-fitting costumes, this is what we are left with.

At the end, in the transit camp - a church, whose bleakness derives, in the context of this film, from the fact that no crosses are to be seen - the camera leaves Paulette and cranes back to encompass the crowd of displaced persons. For a brief moment she is a pathetic child in a scrimmage; then she is gone. This device of pulling back from the characters of a story, of losing them in a crowd, is a commonplace of cinema for which I can see no real equivalent in other arts. Always, because we are abandoning those ‘people’ with whose lives we have been concerned, there is a suggestion that we are passing from fiction into documentary - the fiction having rested solely upon our engagement with them. (At the close of Les Enfants du paradis, for example, we cannot help feeling that we are craning back to reveal not Paris in the 1840s but a studio lot in the 1940s.)

This enhanced sense of loss - not only of the character but of the fiction itself - corresponds well to those circumstances, of which bereavement is only the most obvious example, when we seem to be left naked of meaning: as if our life were a tale whose teller had departed. This has much in common with the unease we experience when looking at a photograph of our younger self, in which the hairs on our head might be counted as readily - and as uselessly - as the blades of the grass where we stand, and we begin to suspect that our only true photograph might be one from which we were absent. If film narration questions self-knowledge differently from literary narration, this is because the instabilities of the self as conceived visually are different from those as conceived verbally.

We have described this film as tracking the interval between death and bereavement: an interval, conceived in almost fairytale terms, during which Paulette creates her own rituals of mourning. At the end she finds herself, like some conquered indigenous race, denied even these by the wider world into which she has been expelled. Politically speaking, it is an experience which has become widespread during our lifetimes.

There are people who, having seen Jeux interdits in their teens or twenties, are reluctant to look at it again, much as one avoids revisiting the scenes of one’s own childhood. (As for myself, I first saw it in the melancholic aftermath of a severe attack of influenza, and its atmosphere is bound up with memories of wandering the grey streets of Hackney in the early weeks of 1953.) But such caution is unnecessary. The film has an internal logic which can weather fluctuations of sentiment. Its subject-matter, the conventions attending burial, schema for the positioning of death in social consciousness: these are themselves a specialised idiom, a species of genre. The rules of genre, whose acquisition seems to follow closely on that of language, facilitate expression while limiting what may be expressed. Few films, however - perhaps no other - have identified with the viewpoint of a child so young. Hence Jeux interdits offers a convincing equation between linguistic and behavioural innocence. A child of Paulette’s age may be uniquely unsure what sort of a story her story is.*

* I have deliberately evaded the question of Paulette’s precise age. It is frequently stated that Brigitte Fossey, who plays the part, was six when the film was made. Wikepedia, indeed, claims that she was ‘only’ six when cast for the role. But it also gives her date of birth as 11 March 1947. As the film was released in May 1952, this means she would scarcely have reached five when it was completed. Furthermore, since we must assume a month at the very least - and most likely more - between the end of shooting and the film’s completion, then the exteriors, where the trees are in full leaf, must surely have been shot in the summer of 1951. International Movie Database gives Fossey’s date of birth as June 1946; but even this, which may well be correct, would only make a difference of about nine months. Still, what really matters is not Brigitte Fossey’s age but the apparent age of Paulette, which seems, to my eye, to be about four.


Credits

Director: René Clément; Writers: Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, from the novel Les Jeux Inconnus, by François Boyer; Producer: Robert Dorfmann; Music: Narciso Yepes (variations on a tune once assumed to be a Spanish folk song but now, I believe, attributed to Fernando Sor); Photography: Robert Juillard; Editor: Roger Dwyre; Art Director: Paul Bertrand.


Dai Vaughan is a novelist, poet and essayist. He worked as a documentary editor. His books are published by BFI publishing, Seren and Quartet.