Eight-year-old Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe) and eight-year-old Sophie (Joséphine Lebas-Joly) meet in that meet-cutest of circumstances, when their cruel classmates are tormenting her from the school bus. As she struggles to regather her scattered books and supplies, Julien appears, and, on her dare, comes to her rescue, sending the school bus down the street driverless. The kids scream, the driver runs off after the bus, Sophie is impressed, and the camera cranes out to reveal the newly anointed partners-for-life, bordered by sweet little homes on either side of their sweet suburban street.
From this moment, Jeux d’enfants proposes, these two kids are destined to be together, even when they’re apart. They define their relationship as a sort of game, a series of dares to perform outrageous acts (alarming to adults and children alike) they assign according to who has possession of a tin cookie can given Julien by his mother: “Game,” one will say, handing over the can, and it’s up to the other to deliver on the just uttered dare. As the game escalates, and the acts become more outrageous (Sophie blurts out a series of sex euphemisms during class, Julien pees on the principal’s carpet), Julien is also grappling with his mother’s (Emmanuelle Grövold) death by metastatic cancer. While he can’t quite understand her deterioration and abandonment, or his father’s (Gérard Watkins) increasing agitation, the boy does appreciate that his mother sympathizes with the game, and even claims to have played it herself when she was young.
The film is structured into parts, titled “Game,” “Set,” and “Match,” that suggest the escalation of the game even as the kids grow into adults, and, as ways of daring one another and indeed, trumping each other’s dares, even as they develop an obvious, if perverse, deep love for one another. This flowers in college, where Julien (now grown up into Guillaume Canet) and Sophie (Marion Cotillard) continue their game, while they initiate a romance. Still, they hang onto their childhood and the passion they ignite in one another by raising the stakes, daring one another to sleep with other people (for instance, “a total bimbo” whose earrings Sophie covets), or to take dangerous action, as against an athlete whom Sophie dares Julien to hit, knowing that he’ll be clobbered in return.
Eventually and unsurprisingly, each player is hurt by the other’s machinations — or in some cases, even the thought of such machinations — leading to still more earnest efforts to injure, to the point that each marries someone else (in Julien’s case, he even has children with the wife), as a means to “get at” the other. While these instances look extreme in the context of well-fitted, excessively contrived fiction, they’re not so far removed from the sorts of emotional horrors wreaked by folks who seek “justice” (or rather, payments) on Judge Mathis, and their appeal is also similar — they’re freakish and banal at the same time.
Though Jeux d’enfants is most obviously about games in a metaphorical as well as literal sense, it is also about the risks that such activities represent and entail. While some viewers have compared the movie to Amélie, because it includes similarly bright color schemes, slow motion, jump cuts, CGI fantasies, and cutesy narrative turns, Yann Samuell’s vision is dark and violent in a way that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s is not (at least not on its surface). That’s not to say that the darkness doesn’t lead to predictably moralistic lessons, for instance, love is a dare, commitment is serious, death is a bad idea.
Still, the violence of their romance is striking, sometimes moving, and always disturbing, even as metaphor. The beginning and end of the film occur in the same moment, as the lovers are buried in a construction site, a building’s cement foundation laid over them as they are locked together forever in what may be a gratifying embrace, after all the pain they’ve caused one another. Impossible as this scene is — contractors pouring cement on a young, breathing couple — it makes visible in an overtly grisly way, the extent to which Julien and Sophie push their mutual testing. The radical nature of their test only makes it more conspicuous, evident to a greater degree.
A next step might be to imagine that these tests are only different in degree, and not in kind, from those shared by more plainly average couples. Whether or not Julien and Sophie are average, in their way, is not the film’s concern (in fact, it presents them as extraordinary in mundane ways). Their expectations of one another seem excessive as physical ,emotional, and moral demands. The fact that they are demands of proof (“Are you game?” is their repeated challenge, hissed or muttered in a sort of grim self-referentiality), rather than demonstrations of faith or trust, makes them well-matched, but also brittle, breakable, and finally, painful to imagine beyond the limits they set for themselves.