The innocence of our childhood is something that we sadly fail to retain as we grow older. We often look back to our childhood years and yearn to have that time of innocence and simplicity again. I think we have this yearning because our early years were (in most cases) far simpler and more enjoyable, and we did not understand the horror and pain of the adult world.
Rene Clement’s haunting, beautiful, and deeply moving coming of age story captures this period of idyllic childhood innocence perfectly. His film also captures this innocent time being shattered. He does a good job of depicting a moment – one which must unfortunately come to us all at some point – in which children lose their innocence and finally become aware of and enter into the adult world. The film reminds me quite a bit of Whistle Down The Wind, and I think that if you enjoyed that film, then you’ll enjoy this one too.
This film is a war film which is notable for focusing not on the soldiers and battles, but on the ordinary people caught up in the war who have to carry on living in a war zone. It is rare for war films to focus on the toll on civilians during wartime, so it’s nice to see this one focusing on that a bit. The opening sequence of the film shows an air strike, and it shows us just how quickly and randomly people can be killed in war. Showing all of this from a child’s perspective gives the sequence even more power in my opinion, as the horror and confusion of the moment is heightened.
Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly. Screenshot by me.
Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly give two of the most natural and moving performances in film history. The fact that they were both so young when they starred in this really makes their performances all the more remarkable to me. I think they both really deserved some kind of award for their work here. They both make your heart break as we watch what they go through, especially during the last few scenes of the film.
The film is set in France in 1940. The Second World War is raging and people are being killed and injured. Paulette (Brigitte Fossey)is a young girl who is fleeing into the countryside with her parents, and her pet dog, Jock. A German air strike instantly kills her parents and also injures Jock, who soon dies from his injuries.
Confused and traumatised, Paulette wanders along a riverbank carrying her dead dog in her arms, and as she walks she ventures deeper and deeper into the countryside. She is found by Michel (Georges Poujouly)a slightly older child who is the son of a poor farmer. His family take in Paulette and they try and care for her. Paulette has no concept of death and doesn’t understand what has happened to her parents and dog. We see her trying to comprehend and make sense of a world without them in it.
Paulette and Michel develop a strong bond and become inseparable. Paulette is obsessed with death and she and Michel try and leave the reality of their world behind. They retreat deeper and deeper into their own little world, and they build a graveyard in which to bury the bodies of dead animals (including Paulette’s beloved dog)that they come across.
The pair steal and make crosses to use as headstones. Michel doesn’t fully understand that stealing is wrong, but you can see that he sort of knows he shouldn’t be doing it; Paulette on the other hand has no idea whatsoever that what they are doing is wrong. Paulette doesn’t understand the anger and annoyance of the adults when they discover the children are to blame for the thefts.
I like how the children see all life, not only human, but animal too, as being sacred and meaningful. The pair feel that animals should have graves and be remembered when they die just like humans do. I also like how kind and compassionate the children are shown to be, whereas the adults are mostly depicted as being angry and selfish. Michel’s parents have moments where they are kind and tender but they are few and far between.
The animal graveyard they build. Screenshot by me.
I always think this film is telling us that we take life more slowly and feel things more deeply when we are children. Quite why we lose that nobody knows, but it is a sad fact of life that we end up becoming hardened and less inclined to see the wonder in our surroundings as we age.
This is a film that stays with me long after it’s finished. This is a film that gets into my heart and soul, I feel with and for these two children and I get angry and upset every time I watch because of what happens at the end. If ever there was a film that I wish had a different ending it would be this one. Having said that though, this ending is certainly realistic and shows that something has to happen to us all to spur us into our adulthood. If only in this case that something didn’t have to be quite so sad and cruel. 😦 The ending to this film makes me cry each time I watch.
Interestingly the Blu-ray I own includes an alternative opening and ending. These alternative sequences show Brigitte and Georges sitting by a river reading a story (the book that appears in the opening credits)and we understand that Paulette and Michel are just fictional characters. These sequences have a dreamlike or fantasy look about them, and I guess they serve to make the film less upsetting. I think not featuring them was the correct choice though as the emotional impact of the ending is what makes this film both powerful and unforgettable. It’s nice to see these sequences though.
My favourite scenes are the following. Michel with the owl at the end of the film. Paulette’s first night in her new home. Michel helping Paulette not to be afraid of the dark. The fight in the graveyard. Paulette walking through the country carrying Jock. The first time we see the completed animal grave. Michel trying to catch the escaped cow.
I consider this to be one of the best coming of age films there has ever been. The acting is excellent, the music is beautiful and the story is one that you don’t forget in a hurry. I’d say this is one of the best French films ever made. What are your thoughts on this film?
I am entering this into Thoughts All Sorts Foreign Language Film blogathon, being held July 2018. Click here to read all the entries for this blogathon.