Probably the most honestly devastating of all war films, René Clément's only covers a couple of air raids, barely features any guns or soldiers, and for the most part takes place in an idyllic subsection of the French countryside, left entirely unscathed by the invading Nazis. This is where Paulette - played with uncanny naturalism by 5-year-old Brigitte Fossey - wanders off to, clutching her dead puppy and having just witnessed Nazi fighter planes mow down her parents. She's shocked, to be sure, and petrified. But - on the outside, at least - she isn't paralysed by her fear, or snivelling like every well-behaved, sufficiently briefed movie child ought to. The grief process she undergoes - or, more precisely, doesn't - is all the more viable, arresting and thought-provoking for being so unorthodox and unsentimental.
Shock and denial and mourning and [non-]acceptance don't filter through her in any neat trajectory. They descend simultaneously in a nasty jumble. Despite her considerable resilience and tenacity, she isn't equipped to sort through it - even the most evolved 5-year-old is unequipped to grapple with death. But because of the war, Paulette is forced to, and - what's more - determined to. Death is set to define her worldview from this day onward, and she is bent on researching it and examining its every facet. Since her understanding of death and grief is unconventional, her means of coping with them are even more so.
The only person in the village who can relate to her plight on a primal level is another child, Michel (the similarly indelible Georges Poujouly, who - as an actor - already possesses an adult's dignity and sensitivity). Michel isn't as struck by the morbidity and the absurdity of Paulette's eventual demands as he is by his desperate need to see her happy and at peace. So, if this means stealing crosses from the villagers' graves and constructing a miniature but (in their eyes) no less legitimate cemetery of their own, he is prepared to go along.
In presenting their actions, Clément takes on an alert but unassuming stance to match the children's. Where others would pile on violins and restless pianos, he opts for a lyrical acoustic guitar or, more often, simple silence. Where others would prod lumpy crocodile tears out of their pre-pubescent puppets, he stands back to let them breathe and take in the surrounding circumstances spontaneously and without force. His images are stark and organic. He drains the picture of every drop of bathos or melodrama - in fact, he strips it to a core, non-invasive portrait of what is, from this perspective, a perfectly valid way of going about things.
The adult characters' ignorance, confused prioritising and casual hypocrisy threaten to turn them into caricatures throughout the movie. But they're portrayed with an open-faced, mellow spirit, which - if it doesn't quite pass for warmth - still speaks of a basic, though weathered, humanity: a pattern of behaviour not easily perturbed and on many levels bizarre, but completely palatable within the context of an ingrown, unfussy day-to-day survivalism that has already withstood one war.
If you're not prone to sympathise with these particular grown-ups, it's because you're given the sense that even war and brutality are no match for their obstinacy and self-preservation. If they're struck down, they can either succumb to that already-inevitable state of permanent peace (that doesn't seem all that removed from a content and uneventful life in the country), or they can get up and continue with the house- and field-work. There is very little conscience or compassion left in them for a war to extinguish.
In this context the crucial terror of war doesn't lie in its maiming and bloodletting, but in the violence it can do to to an unformed, still-shatterable mind. The opening images of anonymous lives annihilated on a country field are horrific in a very immediate way. But their horror doesn't begin to compare to the final impact of watching an ocean of aid-seekers swallow up Paulette in her doomed search for the only human being that could offer her the warmth and understanding to combat a stolen childhood.