When I Was 5, I Killed Myself

(Quand J'Avais 5 And Je M'Ai Tue)

Unlike most American movies, which usually portray children as cute, precocious and asexual, the French drama When I Was 5 I Killed Myself has the distinction of acknowledging children's sexual drives and romantic needs. This forceful drama, which is decorated with an impressive visual design, deserves limited theatrical release, though it lacks the overt commercial appeal of more sentimental children pix, like Cinema Paradiso or My Life as a Dog.

The French industry probably makes more and better movies about children than any other national cinema, which is in itself an interesting observation. Though not in the tradition of Truffaut's films, in its thematic focus, serious approach, and intensity When I Was 5, I Killed Myself bears some resemblance to Rene Clement's l951 classic Forbidden Games, as both films depict private worlds that grownups cannot understand.

Set in l962, tale involves Gil (Dimitri Rougeul), a precocious boy blessed with a creative imagination, who hopelessly falls in love with Jessica (Salome), his beautiful classmate who's as eccentric as he is. Predictably, their love is perceived as “unhealthy” and disruptive, deviating from mainstream society's definitions of how children should or shouldn't behave, and Gil is sent to a center for problematic children.

At the rigid institution, Gil is subjected to the differing methods of the stern educator Dr. Nevele (Patrick Bouchitey), which are in diametric opposition with the more flexible and modern ones of Edouart (Hippolyte Girardot), a young, open-minded intern. While the contrast between the two men and their respective philosophies is too schematic, the scripters succeed in making their point about the damaging effects of outdated, restrictive methods in dealing with children.

Director Sussfeld and his co-writer Carasso show a sensitive ear for the way children communicate and behave, particularly when there are no adults around them. Taking the kids' P.O.V., some scenes at school are charming in their fresh authenticity.

Sussfeld also employs a corollary visual style to accentuate the drama's motifs. The long shots of the institution's empty corridors convey Gil's physical and emotional isolation and the place's cold, impersonal nature. And there's one priceless scene at a zoo, that many children will cherish, in which Gil and Jessica, defying the rules, jump over the fence to get a closer look at the animals.

A good deal of the film's allure derives from its depiction of children's mistrust of any form of authority–be it family, school, medical profession, or psychiatric institute. However, vacillating between a serious clinical case and a spontaneous children adventure, pic sometimes has hard time finding the right tone.

When I Was 5 does make a strong case for greater understanding, permissiveness, and tolerance toward children. This explicit message makes the film's finale both emotionally effective and satisfying from a narrative and ideological standpoint.

The very recognition that children have–and need to express– romantic-sexual instincts makes When I Was 5 an important addition to the growing body of international films about children.