In French the title of this movie is perhaps appropriate, but in English it is misleading. What is "forbidden" about the games that the children play has nothing to do with sex (the usual designation of "forbidden" in English). Instead what 11-year-old Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly) and 5-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) do that is forbidden is they steal crosses, from the cemetery, from the top of a horse-drawn hearse--Michel even attempts to steal the rector's crucifix. They do this as a way of coping with death. The crosses are for dead animals, her dog, some chicks, a worm, etc. that they have buried in a little plot under the mill near a stream.
But this is not a horror show or anything like it. Instead, René Clément's celebrated tale of childhood love is actually a strongly religious anti-war movie of incredible delicacy, laced with humor and poignancy.
It begins with an air attack on a stream of people (presumably Parisians running from Paris) along a country road trying to escape the encroachment of the Nazi army. Little Paulette is in a car with her parents and her little dog, Jock. They are gunned down by a German fighter plane. Paulette's parents and the dog are killed. Paulette is left alone carrying the dead dog in her arms. Eventually she wanders onto a farm where she is met by Michel who takes an instant liking to her and becomes her protector and her friend. His is a peasant family of farmers who really don't need another mouth to feed, but they take her in. She is so clean, they exclaim and she smells so good. She is from Paris. She has just undergone the most horrible terror, the death of her parents and her dog, and now she must somehow come to grips with that loss. What transpires is a child's interpretation of the healing power of religious ritual and symbol.
Clément uses the world of the children as a counterpoint to the war in the background and as a gentle satire on the church. The children make a game of religion and in doing so demonstrate the healing power of ritual and sacrament.
What makes this totally original and deeply symbolic film work is the uncluttered and naturalistic vision of Clément and his wonderful direction of his two little stars. Fossey in particular is amazing. She is completely unaffected and natural, an adorable little girl suddenly alone in the world who must make a new world for herself against great odds. Her sense of personal integrity and her strong will makes us believe that somehow she will succeed. Incidentally, Fossey's performance here in conveying the creative world of the child should be compared with 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol's performance in Jacques Doillon's Ponette (1996), as should the skill and vision of the directors. Both are deeply religious films that rely on the pre-socialized world of the child to show us our own spirituality.
Also very good is Poujouly as the farm boy who loves little Paulette and shows that love by assuming the psychological and spiritual responsibility for helping her to overcome the tragedy of being so brutally orphaned. He is himself experiencing a pre-adolescent coming of age, a transition exemplified by rebellion and a growing independence of mind and spirit. Poujouly is intense and fully engaged, so much so that in one scene we can see him mouth in unison Paulette's lines in preparation for his time to speak. Clément left this in perhaps because he knew it would further characterize Michel's intensity.
This film won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1952 and an Academy Award the same year as best foreign film. It is one of the wonders of the French cinema, a masterpiece of the human spirit not to be missed. See it for the children, whose strength of character can inspire us all.