Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jacques Doillon

With Victoire Thivisol, Xavier Beauvois, Matiaz Bureau, Delphine Schiltz, Marie Trintignant, and Aurelie Verillon.

The cinema has produced its share of excellent directors of children, among them Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffaut, and Abbas Kiarostami. Their shared characteristic is an ability to navigate the interior of their subjects in a complex, realistic, and unsentimental manner. Even when the kids are selfish or irresponsible–as in the Truffaut short Les mistons, his first feature The 400 Blows, or Kiarostami’s The Traveller–a new way of perceiving children and their world emerges from the director’s insistence that they be treated as human beings and their ideas and beliefs taken seriously.

If the impulse outside the United States has been to treat children the way adults are treated, Hollywood films operate by an entirely different set of rules: here children must be spared the messy complications of adult life. For the last two decades, childhood has been the almost exclusive domain of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg–whose considerable success in the marketplace, as Peter Biskind once remarked, is predicated on the ability to infantilize their material. Spielberg, who has frequently acknowledged Truffaut’s influence on his direction of children, typically denies his younger characters any deep emotions. And, lamentably, Spielberg’s considerable impact has meant that his ideology about children permeates mainstream movies, from Jerry Maguire to Liar Liar: children become objects of worship, thus reaffirming the adage that they be seen and not heard.

The remarkable 1996 French feature Ponette, directed and written by Jacques Doillon, is much closer to the Truffaut and Kiarostami paradigm. At once audacious and assured, the film goes even further than Rolf de Heer’s thematically similar The Quiet Room in dramatizing the severe emotional consequences of tragedy on a young girl. A work about loss and transcendence, Ponette forcefully argues that, rather than being protected from the emotional repercussions of her mother’s death, four-year-old Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) will achieve grace and salvation only by acknowledging her grief. In every conceivable way, Doillon is alert to the subtle psychological shadings of Ponette’s reactions and her particular resilience and tenacity.

Doillon carefully constructed his screenplay by establishing a workshop for four- and five-year-olds selected during a comprehensive audition process throughout France. Thivisol, a Lyons preschooler, was chosen on the basis of her comfort and spontaneity in front of the camera. After selecting his actors, Doillon worked for six months with the children, acting out scenarios and creating sketches, asking their opinions on a variety of subjects and adapting his script from their dialogue. This unique collaboration–giving the children a full range of expression–solidifies the film’s emotional base. Though the line between deeper understanding and exploitation is a fine one, Doillon does make the children active participants, and their self-definition offers viewers a rare perspective.

The film opens with the protagonist sitting in a hospital bed, wearing a cast on her arm and tended by her father (played by the talented young director of N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir, Xavier Beauvois). Injured in a car accident, Ponette learns that her mother was seriously hurt in the same crash and might not survive. The scene cuts to Ponette driving with her father in the countryside, where her father’s barely contained rage at her mother’s irresponsibility provokes an edgy tension. Ponette is distracted from what her father is saying–at one point starting to open the window. Her father pulls the car over, places Ponette on the hood, and without warning tells the child her mother is dead.

Following her mother’s funeral, Ponette is left in the care of her aunt and two cousins who are roughly her age. Told by her aunt about Jesus’ resurrection, Ponette patiently awaits her mother’s return, a reunion she dreams about incessantly. “At night I live with my mommy, and during the day I live here. I like the night more,” she says. Doillon never condescends to his subject, never even uses high camera angles to amplify her physical insignificance. If anything, Doillon focuses on Ponette’s grief to the exclusion of everyone else. Doillon’s singleminded sensitivity is reflected in his formal choices: working in a succession of medium close-ups, Doillon settles the camera on this young girl’s face and fills it with meaning and unspoken moments of anguish.

The film’s cinematographer is Caroline Champetier, who has worked with Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. Champetier shows a striking affinity for the emotional currents of young female consciousness. As her striking work with Virginie Ledoyen in Benoit Jacquot’s A Single Girl and Sandrine Kiberlain in Laetitia Masson’s En avoir (ou pas) attests, Champetier is a master at using the camera not only as a means of definition (through gesture and movement) but as a corollary interior voice. Her camera is never passive; it moves, constantly hovering around the characters’ faces, recording the subtlest of inflections. Like Ledoyen and Kiberlain, Thivisol is never objectified but allowed to grow over the course of the narrative.

One of Champetier’s most effective shots shows Ponette’s still body positioned on a diagonal, in the early evening, preparing for her mother’s return–a tranquil, contemplative idyll shattered by her father’s sudden appearance. Her father, a nonbeliever, denies any notion of resurrection and admonishes the child to accept her mother’s death. Ponette is obsessed with fantasies of escape and empowerment (“Someday I’ll teach others to fly,” she says), and she clings to the idea of being reunited with her mother.

The middle passages involve Ponette’s interactions with her peers, first her cousins and then her classmates at a progressive boarding school. Doillon’s handling of these scenes–which could so easily degenerate into sentimental overacting–is a model of restraint. In a scene set in their sleeping quarters, where bunk beds allow for different levels of engagement, the youngsters discuss the relative merits of single women (“They’re people who are alone except for their kids, if they have kids,” says the ringleader, Ponette’s male cousin), tacitly reversing Ponette’s situation. The intellectual level of their discourse is somewhat unrealistic, though it doesn’t detract from the purity of the feelings expressed, capturing the children’s overpowering need to connect to the larger world around them, to counter the isolation and estrangement they often feel.

Thivisol’s best actress prize at Venice occasioned a series of articles in Variety and elsewhere about whether or not what she did was acting (one of the jurors at Venice, Anjelica Huston, pointed out to me in an interview that there were only four female lead performances, including Thivisol’s, among the 20 or so competition films). Thivisol’s performance is hardly a mere stunt. What’s remarkable is that a child of her age, even with prompting, could invoke such a full range of feelings. Her inexperience and youth are essential to her characterization, as if Thivisol were unleashing torrents of feeling and knowledge for the first time and Doillon were ready to seize them.

Throughout the film Thivisol pretty much strips all notions of acting to their purest form. Three scenes in particular illustrate her potency. In the first, just following her mother’s death, Ponette collects a series of personal objects, including a teddy bear and feather, in preparation for her mother’s return. When her mother fails to materialize, they become powerful reminders of her absence. “Now that everybody’s gone, you can come, you can do it just for me,” Ponette says. In the second sequence, a sort of game or ritual, Ponette’s cousins deposit her in a garbage bin and she shrieks with pain and confusion, a powerful metaphor for Ponette’s sense of abandonment. Finally, Doillon captures the tyranny of children in a playground scene, when an older boy argues with Ponette over possession of a toy gun, then indolently tells her she’s responsible for her mother’s death.

Doillon shows great skill at placing his protagonist within the physical environment: emblematic of her lingering frustration and pain is her tininess compared to the vast space around her. In the film’s penultimate moment, we see Ponette digging into the earth, attempting to reclaim her mother’s body. Breaking with the film’s realistic approach, Doillon introduces an extended climactic confrontation between mother and daughter. Though it’s well acted by Thivisol and Marie Trintignant (“Stop your crying. Stop complaining. I don’t want a sad child,” she instructs Ponette), the moment destroys the emotional intensity and honesty Doillon has worked so hard to sustain in the film’s first 80 minutes.

But the scene does lead to a final gesture of transcendence: the passing of a bright red sweater suggests Ponette’s acceptance of her mother’s death and a deeper commitment to carry on. The emotional truth of Ponette connects each scene with every other, and by the final shot–a reconciliation between father and daughter–Ponette is credibly rewarded for her faith.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.