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PONETTE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Victoire Thivisol, Delphine Schlitz, Matiaz Bureau Caton
Director:  Jacques Doillon
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Fox Lorber
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Filmographies, Awards
Length:  92 Minutes

Film ***1/2

In an era where Hollywood can’t seem to get enough cute kids on film, it’s a rarity to actually find a movie that has faith in the delicate subject of childhood.  Most films tend to treat children as little adults, giving them lines and witticisms no kid would ever really utter, just for the sake of comedy.  Sometimes, the results are funny, but for every Home Alone that came out, I found myself wondering aloud if any writer, director or producer actually remembered what it was really like to be a child.  But thankfully, a quiet, unassuming little film from France challenged the Hollywood notion, and has won many hearts around the world as a result.  That film was Ponette.

Director/writer Jacques Doillon has created in his movie perhaps the most honest portrait of childhood ever captured on film.  And there can be no question that this was his intention from the start.  Before writing a single word of the script, Doillon spent months interviewing young children and recording them on video—including some who had experienced the loss of a parent.  He simply let them talk, and explain things from their own point of view.  The result of his research is a script filled with the real wonder of childhood:  how kids think, what they say, and just how they go about explaining what they can’t possibly understand…young imaginations at their most fertile and unspoiled.

At the heart of the picture is the title character.  Ponette is a four year old girl who’s just lost her mother in a car accident.  She’s at an age where a child should be blissfully unaware that such a thing as death exists in the world.  It’s a crushing loss for anyone to suffer, and this point is driven home by her father, who is too distraught in his own grief to be much of a comfort to her.  In a poignant scene, he even begs her to swear she won’t leave him, too.

Ponette eventually ends up in the care of her aunt, while her father goes to his new job.  There, along with her young cousins, the mysteries of life and death begin to open up before her, as she insists that her mother can and will come back to her.

Most of the film’s magic comes as Ponette interacts with her cousins, and later, the other children at school.  Obviously, death is not a concept any of them can fully grasp, but the way they talk about it is so real, and so right, no matter how misguided their ideas might be.  One suggests that a series of playground tests might make Ponette’s wish come true.  Another kid cruelly claims that mothers only die when their children are bad.

The film, for the most part, rests squarely on the performance of Victoire Thivisol as Ponette…and her work is amazing.  She is not a child who acts, but an actress.  I don’t think I’ll ever know how a four year old girl could deliver the kind of heart felt and fully realized performance she does, but I consider it one of the most inspiring visions I’ve ever had the fortune to see at the movies.

In one of the most unforgettable scenes, Ponette sneaks into the chapel after dark to pray.  As she talks to God, tears of heartbreak and confusion come.  She can’t understand her mother won’t come and talk to her one last time, and begs for that chance.  In a few moments of screentime, Ms. Thivisol’s performance speaks volumes, and the reason why this scene is never met with dry eyes is not just because our hearts go out to a sad little girl.  Somewhere inside, we remember what it was like to be confronted at a tender age with harsh truths that don’t seem to make sense.  Even as adults, some of them still don’t.

But I don’t mean to make Ponette sound like a depressing film…it truly isn’t.  In a wonderful way, Doillon’s film celebrates life through the childlike exploration of death.  Though the subject matter may be sad, there’s something about the innocent way the children address it that’s almost effervescent. 

If the film has a flaw, it comes in the much discussed and debated ending, in which Ponette finally sees the spirit of her mother, and because of their encounter, seems to be a little more ready to let go and continue with her young life.  In some ways, it is a beautiful sequence, and indicative of what I think most audience members would have given Ponette if they could…but on the other hand, in a movie that had been built upon simple honesty up to that point, it almost seems like cheating to end it that way.  To inject that note of fantasy into the film at that point was simply the wrong choice, and a disservice to the journey of Ponette, by not allowing her the opportunity to let her grief heal in a natural way.

But regardless of the ending, this is still a film whose simple beauty cannot be easily undermined.  The magical way Ponette and her friends bring the wonder of childhood to life, and the way Doillon has captured that spirit on film, has made Ponette a picture to be cherished.

Video ***

For reasons I don’t understand, Fox Lorber has chosen to forgo a widescreen presentation for this disc.  That being said, the full frame presentation is still quite good, with clean and crisply detailed images, good coloring, and no noticeable scars or artifacts.  One or two darker scenes exhibit a slight amount of grain, but nothing distracting.  Overall, Doillon’s mastery of natural lighting creates a picture that is as pretty and warm as a summer’s day. 

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is only in stereo, but given the movie is mostly dialogue, is a serviceable mix.  Dynamic range is neither present nor required.

Features **

The disc contains the American theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and crew filmographies, and a listing of the film’s international awards, including Best Actress for Ms. Thivisol at the Venice Film Festival.

Summary:

Ponette is that rare jewel of a film that serves to remind us that some of the best movie magic still comes in simple, unspoiled forms.  This is a picture that has captured the essence, beauty, innocence and wonder of childhood, and finds a way to take a sad subject matter and teach us that in spite of the tragedy of death, there is still so much joy to experience in life.