Book reviews Film reviews

Jean Queval: A “Cursed First Novel”

About Jean Queval

In order to understand better where Queval is coming from in his critique of Forbidden Games, a bit of information about Queval himself, whose life is equally fascinating. Queval (1913-1990) was a prolific writer, journalist, film critic and translator with an affinity to English literature. He translated, for example, James Agee, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bertrand Russell from English to French and he was also a renowned expert on British film.

Originally, however, he started out as a sports journalist under the pseudonym Jacques Dormeuil, then began working as a film critic in the early 1930ies. An ardent monarchist with a dislike of democracy, employed at the press agency Inter-France starting in 1938, he quit in 1941 because of the agency’s increasing collaborationism and became active in the French Résistance. There were a few close calls for him, where he got arrested by police or almost fell into the hands of the occupying forces. However, as if he were a character in a novel himself, he got away with his activism at the last second; one time because French police helped him by destroying evidence and forging reports. 

During the occupation, Queval himself collected evidence against collaborationist Parisian journalists, which he published right after the end of the war in his book Première page, cinquième colonne (1945)and which, coming to be understood as a list of traitors, caused a huge uproar amongst his colleagues.It also earned him quite a bit of notoriety. 

Shortly after the war, Queval’s most prolific phase started. He wrote, for example, for l’Ecran français, for Combat, Radio-Cinéma-Télevision, Les Nouvelles Littéraires, was responsible for the film section in Mercure de France from 1947 to 1962, and became a jury member for the Cannes Film Festival, collaborating among others with Jean Cocteau. Through his work, he must have therefore been familiar with most other representatives of the Nouvelle Vague, such as Henry Chapier, Georges Charensol and Maurice Martin du Gard. It is also known that he was a foundational member of the literary group l’Oulipo, dedicated to linguistic and literary innovation, as well as friends with author Raymond Queneau. Also, he wrote books about Jacques Prévert, Jacques Becker and Marcel Carné (among many other topics).

Queval on Forbidden Games

The review of Forbidden Games written by Queval for Mercure de France in July 1952 is rather unique in comparison with the others I have collected on this blog. First of all, it is one of the longest and most detailed. Also, it starts with a discussion of François Boyer’s novel, where other reviews mostly ignore it. Moreover, Queval considers the book to be superior to the film by Clément – another rare statement. And lastly, he barely has anything positive to say about the film – a sentiment that is the direct opposite of most other critics’ at the time, who tend to gush about the quality of the film and the talent of its maker or makers (depending on their personal attitude towards Auteur Theory). All this makes the article one of the most interesting to look at.

Going against the grain, and sometimes against his peers, seems to have been part of Queval’s professional nature – which might at least partially explain his stance in his review of Boyer’s novel and Clément’s film. It starts out with Queval voicing his sympathy for Boyer, who he says has written “a cursed first novel”. Not that it got no attention at all, he explains, but “it has not received the spectacular reception deserved by a first book whose sensitivity to nature, austerity of a dense report, and rustic flavor remind of Colette, and whose sujet is of a simple and tragic beauty” (Queval 1952: 505). 

He is one of the very few critics who state a possible reason for this, claiming that our “young literary criticism, entangled in fashions and defining itself in relation to a vision of the century where the absurd dominates everything, fails at welcoming, let’s say individual works such as this one, where the absurd is not absent, as we have seen, but where the author is concerned with its clean depiction rather than with fueling discourse” (Queval 1952: 505). 

When Queval first read the book upon a recommendation by film director Marcel Cravenne, he became convinced that cinema could not do the novel justice. He personally told Boyer, who he says was fresh out of the IDHEC and “still believed in all sorts of miracles”, that “cinema would ravage his beautiful story; that I couldn’t see which film auteur would know how to empathize with it, in order to adopt the nuances of the land and of childhood with the genius plasticity necessary; that the best actors directed in the best way would inflate the adult characters and make them unbearable” (Queval 1952: 505).

Upon hearing that the task was going to be taken on by René Clément, Queval thought that “if an attempt absolutely had to be made, the cineaste seemed to be well-chosen” (Queval 1952: 506). After all, Clément had already earned himself a standing in the film community with such films as La bataille du rail (1946) and Au delà des grilles (1949). He was known for his style of poetic realism and demonstrated, according to Queval, “some ambition for the beautiful” (Queval 1952: 507).

The first disappointment for Queval was Clément’s choice of screenplay writers. “We would have liked for René Clément […] to pick François Boyer as the only literary associate, so that the film would be adapted in accordance with the novel’s best intelligence, and so that the young novelist who wants to be a cineaste actually got his first shot at cinema” (Queval 1952: 507). However, he continues, Boyer was hired in a much smaller capacity, working only on one third of the dialogue. 

Instead, Clément once more went with Aurenche and Bost, “who can be counted amongst those of intelligence in French cinema” (Queval 1952: 507). This however, in Queval’s opinion, was disastrous: “with or without agreement of the original author (whom criticism keeps ignoring […]) […] they have forced the contrast between the children – sensitive and noble in their secluded universe – and the adults, of whom they make moronic, superstitious, gesticulating, lewd, coward and sordid yokels. So that the imitative genius of the children plays off a masquerade peasantry. The poetry of the subject, cut off from its reference to the real, breaks into a thousand pieces. […] It’s a disaster in several chapters.”

Queval then sets out to delineate the intention behind this depiction. He claims that Forbidden Games is dealing in “romanticism on a dark background”, which is “the most constant temptation of ambitious cineastes in France” (Queval 1952: 507). The “glory of childhood” (and other tragic figures’ such as adolescents’, renegade soldiers’ et al.) is articulated in contrast to “either war, or pharisaic bourgoisie, or peasantry” as in the case of Forbidden Games. This is, he continues, “just as naive as it is Manichean”. 

The critic continues to argue that the problem mainly lies with the depiction of religiousness in the film. If religion were not led ad absurdum, if the adults demonstrated real religious faith instead of mere superstition, “if a sentiment of the sacred permeated this story,” “the game, for example, would gain a higher meaning”. The expression of a rather “sociological” (Queval 1952: 508) attitude towards catholicism is what generally dominates the fashion of the day, he says. Nevertheless, was it necessary, he asks, “to ban all dignity from tradition, all self-possession in front of mystery, all real respect of the adults for their dead?” 

Now, the reader’s first reaction might be to question the full coherence of these critical statements, since an anti-religious sentiment is a cornerstone of the novel, too. It was Boyer who originally chose a decidedly anticlerical tone for his narrative, satirizing religious authorities and institutions. However, Queval anticipates this reaction, claiming that the written text had means of expression that the film could not translate. He says that the film specifically did not manage to “capture the right tone of transposition” and that it “forces these scenes” (Queval 1952: 508). 

Lastly, Queval makes a suggestion as to how the topic could be treated in a more effective way. “I do believe that the sujet – the little girl’s traumatization, the nature of children’s love, the game of crosses – would have had better resonance in a milieu like the one in Farrebique” (Queval 1952: 508). Farrebique is a film documentary by Georges Rouquier about French farming life in the 1940ies, much praised for its authenticity and natural style. 

He ends by applauding the opening sequences of Forbidden Games, which he finds “are adapted with a vigor, a self-assurance, a density that deserve one raises one’s hat. After that, my advice is to leave the theater, if merely for the purpose of not ruining the memory of a great moment of cinema” (Queval 1952: 508). Clément, he then advises in a snide closing statement, should think about making action films in the future, rather than dabbling “in the finer points of psychology” (Queval 1952: 508).

Overall, Queval makes several strong points in his review of the film, especially in relation to the fact that Boyer’s novel has mostly been ignored by critics. Even though one can argue (and a few have) about the quality and style of the prose, I agree with Queval that the text deserves attention as well, especially since the film adaptation diverges quite a bit from the original. There are indeed nuances in the written text that just cannot be communicated in the same way via film. What a reader of Queval’s critique might be missing, however, is a more detailed discussion of examples of those nuances. Also, it would be interesting to learn more about how exactly it is that the film „misses the right tone of transposition“ and whether a better job could really be done. After all, Queval states that the book should not have been adapted for film at all – a rather harsh statement by a literature enthusiast. So maybe Clément, who apparently thought otherwise, was still doing the best that is possible with the means of his art. 


Jean Queval, “Cinéma: Les Jeux interdits“, in: Mercure de France (July 1 & 2, 1952), 505-508.

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