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Pierre Kast: Getting a “Grip” on the Closed World of Children

Pierre Kast (1920-1984) was a French film director, TV and screenplay writer, novelist and journalist of the Nouvelle Vague. He wrote film reviews for Action and Cahiers du Cinéma, which was edited by André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. His style of film-making was heavily influenced by Jean Grémillon, a well-known film director and president of the Cinémathèque Française from 1943-1958, and his experimental and avant-gardist understanding of film. A friend of François Truffaut’s, Kast also worked alongside René Clément, Preston Sturges and Jean Renoir. 

His review of Clément’s Jeux interdits, published in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 13, is from June 1952. 

There, he does briefly discuss Boyer’s novel, however judges the “theme riveting, and the literary treatment far below the theme” (Kast 1952: 65). He finds the subject matter similar to key works of “children’s literature”, such as Lewis Carroll’s (? The author is not indicated) “Alice” (in Wonderland? – he does not give the full title), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. Because he considers Boyer’s novel lacking in literary quality, he dedicates his review only to a comparison of the book’s subject matter or content with the film. Like most critics at the time, he ignores Boyer’s role in the making of the final film script of Forbidden Games, praising only the work of Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and René Clément. He also does not mention that Clément’s script is heavily based on an original film script written by Boyer. 

Kast starts by singing the praises of René Clément’s skill as a director, cameraman/director of photography and film editor. His work, he observes passionately, is marked by “technical mastery”, a “particular predilection for subtlety, for infinitesimal nuance” (65). Clément’s method of storytelling in Jeux interdits demonstrates, in Kast’s opinion, his most important concern: “efficacy, the full charge of violence in every image that stems from a very precise intention to achieve an effect, to trigger a reaction, to make a point, to have the spectator make a step forward.” Clément works to achieve “formal perfection of every image,” in the “search for, the care about formatting”, which demonstrates that “an iron discipline exists underneath this apparent gratuity” (65). His style can be described as “an absolute submission of technical means to the dramatic effects, or even better, to the necessity of a demonstration” (66). Also, Forbidden Games employs registers that reach from “the burlesque […] to the tragic, passing derision, terror, horror or tenderness. That is not a mix of genres, a confusion of the tragic and the burlesque, of drama and farce, but the judicious application of a whole arsenal; one is encircled, attacked from all sides, and finally, since that is the goal, convinced [emphasis in the original]” (66). Clément’s achievement, says Kast, demonstrates what separates film as an object from film as a work of art (cf. 66).

Jeux interdits, Kast further writes, is “Clément’s most accomplished work” (64), demonstrating “a clarity and rigor of which he finds few other examples”, marrying “audacity of content” with “formal perfection” (66). Also, it features “Aurenche’s and Bost’s best dialogue, a direction of the actors that one sees only rarely, actors, children themselves, whose suppleness, variety and, in sum, professionalism confound” (66). 

However, it is not only the technicalities of storytelling that seem to fascinate Kast. Clément has managed, he states, to make “one of the few films about children that I know that are not a manifestation of infantilism on the part of its authors” (65). The film’s “secret content” is “that the children are not little adults”. In this, it is unlike most other films or books about childhood that construct an “enjoyable and intellectually suffocating, optimistic conception of the childish soul”, which is “the image that some adults equipped with a good conscience unfailingly create for themselves of their own childhood”. Kast wonders “whether finding themselves this beautiful when they were young is not a means of finding themselves less ugly as grownups” (65), i.e. whether these projections of childhood mainly serve the purpose of adults’ positive (and flawed) self-evaluation.

This is where he locates the film’s “surprising novelty” (67). Hardly a work of literature or film has, in his opinion, managed to get a grip on “the world of childhood that is entirely closed and intangible […] before Forbidden Games“. The “surprising astuteness of the subject” of Forbidden Games (so, the subject of the film but also the novel, even though Kast does not mention this), is “that we do not have two abstract children, citizens of a republic of childhood-in-itself but two children put in a situation [emphasis in the original], linked to a perfectly determined political, social, and moral context, who fundamentally express with great power via what one calls their games [emphasis in the original] the contradictions and the mystifications of that context. In this way, we are not even dealing with only childhood anymore but, according to the law of exemplarity, with what a world makes of its children” (65f.). 

The film’s essential importance, he states, lies in its skilled expression “of this concept of the world of childhood in the language of cinema” (65). In this way, the film casts “a brutal light on the adults’ world. The people who found Michel’s and Paulette’s play with death morbid simultaneously proved that they did not find their own play with war and with death morbid. The fact that Michel dive-bombs a beetle does not demonstrate René Clément’s cruelty but the blindness of those who consent to the existence of dive-bombings or justify them in the end” (66). 

Kast finally judges that “it has been a long time since we last saw a French film as courageous in its attack on the moral complacency of those who accept the world as it is” (66). It manages to “give significance to the new world it created; it […] [gives] it shock value, which shakes the spectator, rips him out of his chair, out of his life, and out of his era, like the agon in Greek tragedies” (66). 

In conclusion, Kast lists many noteworthy aspects of the film, offering us a language to describe the singular achievement that it was at its time. However, looking closely at his evaluation, we can also extract implicit commentary about the novel that goes beyond the tracing of the source of the film dialogue’s quality, which can be attributed not only to Aurenche and Bost but mainly to Boyer. If the film’s theme or content is audacious, surprising, and (politically, morally) relevant, and if it employs a whole “arsenal” of registers, so is/does the novel/’s. A close reading of the text will show that. The same is true about the film’s particular depiction of childhood/children and their world that offers commentary on adult society. Therefore, Boyer and his original work deserve more critical attention, being the basis and starting point of the particular uniqueness and originality that Kast underlines in his discussion of the film.  


Pierre Kast, “Le jeu de grace des petits anges“. In: Cahiers du Cinéma (June 1952), 13, 64-67. 

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