The film begins with a caravan of people leaving war-torn Paris with all their belongings on carts and in broken down cars. We meet a couple and their young daughter, Paulette. Paulette has a puppy named Jock that runs away. Being a child, Paulette's instinct is to run after the escaping dog. But little Paulette is oblivious to the danger surrounding her. Amid the frantic energy of everyone trying to leave on the same bridge, are German planes bombing the citizens as they flee. Paulette's parents, knowing the danger that's present, try to save Paulette from harm and end up dying in the process. Poor Jock is also killed. But there's no time to grieve. People are still making their way towards safety. A man picks up Paulette and puts her in a cart with his wife. Paulette, who has decided that the body of a dead puppy seems like a good thing to hold on to, finds out from the woman on the cart that, you know, maybe a dead puppy probably isn't the best thing to keep ahold of. And she throws him in a river! Just tosses him! To quote Phoebe from Friends, "Okay, what kind of sick doggy snuff film is this?!?" Paulette jumps out after him and meets a peasant family. Suddenly the frenzy of the first 15 minutes of the film give way to a quietness and the heart of the film begins.
Paulette is taken in by the family and immediately forms an attachment to the young boy, Michel. It is Michel's idea to give shelter to the girl. When she is going to bed, the dark frightens her. Michel says to call out his name and he'll protect her. The two become so connected, so quickly, that it almost seems unrealistic. But, that's the way friendships are built in childhood. There is immediate trust since life has not yet taught them to be cynical and weary of each other.
The next day, Paulette sets out to bury Jock. Along the way she becomes enamored by a crucifix and learns about Christian prayers. Michel helps her with the burial and tells her they'll make a cemetery. This is also new to Paulette (man, didn't her parents teach her anything?) who learns that cemeteries are where they put the dead together so they don't get sad. So Jock won't be sad being buried alone, they decide to make a cemetery for animals.
Michel sets about acquiring as many crosses and crucifixes as he can for their project. He and Paulette take them from the actual cemetery, including one from his own brother's recent grave. He was killed by being kicked by a horse–which seems like such a silly way to die in wartime. (Ah, such is life!) And it sets off a feud with Michel's family and their neighbhor, whom they accuse of doing the stealing.
But, the war, dead parents, dead brothers, feuding families–these aren't problems that a child thinks about. The children are able to escape such plights with the little world that they've created. One that's so enchanting that troubles seem to go away:
The cemetery has an almost dreamlike quality to it. For something as macabre and depressing as death, there is something so beautiful about this. It was made with love and the care they put into it shows:
This film reminded me a lot of Pan's Labyrinth and Life is Beautiful in the way that an alternate reality exists for the children so that they don't have to face the harsh realities of war. But, unlike those films, this one always seemed firmly in this world. Yes, this is a fantastical place, but it's made with very tangible things. Dirt, shells, wood. It's their childlike wonder that is able to transform the mundane. Making the harsh realities of the world somewhat bearable.