Opened: July, 1997 (play dates vary by city) | Unrated
A truly miraculous and visceral performance by 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol makes it hard to look away from "Ponette," the heart-wrenching story of a pensive little French girl trying to make sense of her mother's death.
Inconsolable and convinced her mother will return, Ponette is confused by conflicting theories on God and death presented to her by her father, her aunt, her teachers and playmates. She spends many days just waiting for her mommy, killed in a car crash that the girl survived, to come see her. When she goes to bed she dreams.
"At night I live with my mommy. In the day I live here," she says. "I like the night more."
She listens intently to her aunt's stories of the Resurrection and argues with children who tell her dead people don't come back. When her little cousin points out that their dead grandfather didn't come back, Ponette replies simply, "Because no one was waiting for him."
Precious Victoire won best actress at the 1996 Venice Film Festival for her emotional performance that is far beyond her years. I have never seen an adult actress cry with such painful believability as she does in several scenes here.
Early on she argues with her father (Xavier Beauvois), who's grief manifests itself as anger toward his dead wife. Out loud he blames her for the accident and Ponette stomps her foot and insists "It was not her fault!"
In the last act she runs away to her mother's grave and bawls her eyes out while digging at the ground with her little fingers. Anyone who could watch this scene without wanting to pick her up and hold her has a heart of stone.
The film does beg a moral question about what a filmmaker must do to make such a little girl cry on cue like this. I had to imagine director Jacques Doillon yelling "Cut!" and Thivisol's real mother running to her with a cornucopia of hugs and kisses. But one has to give Doillon credit for his heart-felt purity. The veracity of the emotions in "Ponette" is astounding.
The same can be said for the child-like attention to detail. The camera never leaves Ponette's face for more than a moment (the cinematographer must have gotten very sore knees) and her every thought is clear in her eyes. We understand her motivation for every tear and every action.
In one scene Ponette prays to God that she wants to talk to her mother. She is in a field and before she speaks she climbs a stone wall to be as close to heaven as possible.
Doillon also manages to make the audience feel responsible for his heroine. There are many scenes in which adults are conspicuously absent. At first this bothered me. Where are the people who should be looking after this heartbroken girl? At a time like this she should not be alone.
But I now think it was intentional -- a way of giving the audience a sense of obligation in seeing that Ponette survive this terrible episode and resume a normal, happy childhood.
This symbolic breaking of the fourth wall, while succeeding in the emotional arena, is the only place in which the film falters, for it feels to an extent like babysitting. But this is a quibble in an otherwise incomparable film.
Entirely dependent on the performance of Victoire Thivisol, "Ponette" rises with her amazing ability to play so real. This little girl is an old soul. You can see it in her manner. At only four she know joy, sorrow and the strength of human bonds. It is that knowledge that makes this film irresistible.