(France - 1996)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
12/5/03 (Vanes 7/10/01)

Cast: Victoire Thivisol, Delphine Schiltz, Matiaz Bureau Caton, Leopoldine Serre, Xavier Beauvois, Marie Trintignant
Genre: Drama
Director: Jacques Doillon
Screenplay: Jacques Doillon
Cinematography: Caroline Champetier
Composer: Philippe Sarde
Runtime: 92 minutes

"It's not nice to lie to me!" - Ponette

VN: Watching this film, one thing comes to mind, and it's both sad and ironic: a 4 year old kid, in her first performance, shows more range and acting skills in 90 minutes than the current Bogus Academy winner for "Best Actress" Julia Roberts has shown in her entire career. Things like that make you think, about the role of kids in cinema, and the use directors make of such a valuable asset. In Hollywood, kids are treated as cutesy relief, stripped of any emotion besides the ones that generate an involvement by the viewer, such as tear jerker crying machines or kids looking cute and "capturing" the screen like they supposedly do in the worthless films of Steven Spielberg. Other directors, especially in France, tried to go beyond and show real emotions of REAL children, welcoming us to their simple, yet confused world, full of various different emotions and states of mind. Besides the obvious, like Francois Truffaut or Abbas Kiarostami, one director that caught my eye doing this was Jacques Doillon in Ponette.

ML: The American movies don't seem to have any true recollection of what it was like to be a child. They fail to put themselves back into the mindset; only being able to approach the characters in terms of what they hadn't gone through and didn't know yet. It's like they reach childhood by subtracting from adulthood and combining that with warm and humorous memories, which supposedly are the only things the audience is interested in anyway. Thus, the films are always nostalgic looks that revere the innocence of childhood, the good old days when everything was simple and you didn't have a care beyond what you were doing that moment. They fail to get inside the character, to find a heart and mind in there and tap into it, instead just settling for puppets on a string that are manipulated into generic poses. It just seems in general, in this country you are supposed to be spared from anything that might try or enlighten you until you are nearly out of high school. Then suddenly, by some magic transference, you are supposed to be transformed from a person that's never even had an opinion on any real problem or tragedy to a fully functional adult.

The importance of the film Ponette is that it counters this idiotic ideology that robs children of their voice, instead showing why children must withstand certain truths in order to transcend them like adults do. In real life and good cinema, children are much more similar to adults. The thought processes and emotions, of course, are the same. They aren't as cultivated, as well thought out and maturely presented, but they still have strong feelings, wills, and beliefs. They might be entirely silly to an adult. They might distracted from them quickly or forget about them entirely, but when they are there they take them seriously and they can have surprising willpower, patience, and stubbornness when it comes to them. They are not likely to be present when it comes to adult territories like politics, but certainly when a child is robbed of a parent they are going to have to deal with it in some way, so why not the way any adult would consider logical?

VN: The biggest strength children have, as far as acting goes is spontaneity. They're stripped of any ego-serving malice, they can perfectly portray sadness and happiness, but they have an equally important weakness, that acting "range" is incredibly difficult to control, and the reason for that lies in their young age. They have the tools, but don't know or aren't SUPPOSED to know how to use them yet. The only way to get something useful out of them is have someone who can understand how to extrapolate emotions out of them without overacting. That is, unless the kids show extraordinary talent by themselves already.

ML: If the director is going for the right thing and not looking for a cute puppet, the lack of ego serving is the big plus of using children. If they are young enough and/or have been raised properly they haven't been corrupted by silly ideas of what you supposedly have to do to make it and be popular. They are still a human being rather than some walking product trying to do anything they can to get an extra penny in their pocket. Children also haven't had much or any training, which can be a bonus. Even with an adult like Ashley Judd, her best role was her first notable role, in Ruby in Paradise by the vastly underrated Victor Nunez. The more she has "learned to act" the more she responds like an actor "should", and the less she responds with any kind of emotional truth. Sometimes people need to get to a place without knowing how or why, to just go with what they themselves feel. When they get into thinking about how they are supposed to get there or how other people have gotten there, they wind up being conventional, predictable, and thus boring and unoriginal.

VN: What Victoire Thivisol has been able to do in this film is nothing short of amazing, because the film required her performance to be excellent, this was a "make or break" performance. In a way, Doillon put all his eggs in one basket, having complete faith in Thivisol's abilities to convey the drama of children facing such a tragic loss. She not only performs incredibly well "for a child", but she performs incredibly well, PERIOD. She shows great range, being believable in the most tragic scenes that convey her grief, but also naive and innocent meeting with the harsh reality of the adults' world and the people who live around her.

ML: Strife related to family problems and the difficulties of growing up are supposed to be some of Doillon's subjects, but I haven't seen any of his other films so I'll try sticking to what I am more familiar with. Doillon got involved with Jane Birkin after she broke up with Serge Gainsbourg, and this film fits right in with some of the other Birkin family films. It takes a controversial subject (in Agnes Varda's Kung Fu Master it was love between an adult and a teenager and in Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden it was love between a brother and sister, both were even better films than Ponette) and tries to explore the feelings from the perspective of the affected protagonists as honestly, compassionately, and free of artifice as possible. All these films have key roles from children and teenagers. Kung Fu Master has Jane's daughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon as well as Varda's son Mathieu. Cement Garden also has the supremely talented Charlotte, as well as Andrew's son Ned and the other two children had never acted before. Jacques daughter Lou was about the same age as Thivisol when she made her debut in Kung Fu Master, so it's no surprise he'd have faith in the potential of youngsters.

Doillon also knows the potential of youngsters from a film that must have inspired Ponette, Rene Clement's classic Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) where a young girl is taken in by a farm family after her parents and dog are gunned down by the Nazis. This film focuses on the burial aspect of death, which obviously doesn't make sense to children. Hell, can you find me any adults that are sure whether the funeral is for the person that died or the people that are left behind, or both? And why must people be buried in something rather than returning to the earth like every other living thing? Anyway, in Clement's film, which features a wonderful performance by 5-year-old Brigitte Fossey, the kids wind up thinking it's so important to honor the dead that they kill animals and insects so they can bury them, complete with stolen crosses!

What makes 4-year-old Thivisol's performance so amazing is that Doillon did, as you say, put all his eggs in one basket. These days, it's so common to cast based on look rather than acting ability or any skill the role requires. Just look at "martial arts" movies. Bruce Lee was in the process of making them so much more realistic, getting rid of not only the silly ideas like knowing martial arts means you can also fly but also a lot of the fake techniques. He was replacing them with strikes that were to the most direct point and moves other than strikes that really work like arm bars and chokes. The fights were choreographed in sequences that required timing, athleticism, synchronization, and so on, and you had to actually train in the arts to pull them off. Now all you have are no-acts that supposedly look good, such as Keanu Reeves and Canto pop singers, doing things one step at a time because it's all corny wiring, laughably fake graphics, incredibly obvious speeding up, and more edits per minute than even the most irritating music videos. It looks like shit and is boring as hell.

Doillon has decided he's not going to rely on editing, and the movie is blocked as such. Each scene is set up so that Ponette is always on camera. The other characters sometimes walk in or out, but once they've entered the shot contains them and Ponette, following them as they move. Caroline Champetier's cinematography, like the rest of the film, is purposely nothing fancy, but sometimes that makes things more difficult. Getting a bunch of preschool kids to do things right for couple minute stretches and keeping them on screen and in focus all this time as they walk stairs and jump off walls is a major accomplishment to be certain.

Much like another film she shot, Benoit Jacquot's very good La Fille seule (A Single Girl), the film is so successful largely because of the way Champetier's has lensed it. She doesn't assert a viewpoint onto the audience, and that is a rare quality. Jacquot's film starred Virginie Ledoyen, a strong contender for the most beautiful woman ever and certainly someone that always inspires comments like "the camera loves her", but Champetier manages to totally ignore her physicality. I don't believe that's because she's a woman, the opposite sex can often be worse because (if they are straight) they aren't shooting on what is turning them on, but what they've been led to believe would turn their counterparts on. The lack of physicality is a clear decision that allows us to see her characters simply as human beings. We don't see Virginie as a superbabe, we see her as simply any young woman that just found out she's pregnant who is determined to keep the child and isn't sure if further involvement from her unreliable unemployed boyfriend will be to her benefit or detriment. Similarly we don't see Ponette or the other children as small or insignificant because Champetier has chosen to use middle close-ups. In both cases, these shots aren't stagnant, but help accentuate and small facial movements and gestures that help us come to understand the character's truth rather than someone's opinion of them.

VN: At first glance, this film might seem like a reflection on grief, on how kids react on the loss of a parent, how they're able to survive after that. Really, this is more about the confusion living in the kids' minds, full of information they can't completely understand, full of dogma they aren't able to rationalize, full of so many different interpretations of the same thing they can't figure out what to choose as the TRUTH. Once Ponette realizes she doesn't understand what is the right way to proceed in order to achieve what she's looking for (talk to her deceased mother once again), decides to try everything and everybody.

ML: In more ways than one, the film is about not underestimating children. They are much more realistic than we give them credit for, than we allow them to be. It makes us ask ourselves why we tell them things we'd never tell adults, and what the consequences of telling them myths and lies can be. The adults refuse to be realistic at the outset, and then when they see they need to be realistic it's too late. Ponette believes her mother, who just died in an accident, can come back from the dead because she's told Jesus did. Jesus can be a source of hope, but hope is only good if a possibility of what you hope will come true exists. Her little cousin Matiaz (Matiaz Bureau Caton) tells her dead people never come back early on, but Ponette doesn't believe him because a higher authority, Matiaz' mom, already gave her the one supposed example where that wasn't the case. Matiaz points out that their grandfather never came back, but remembering that Jesus' friends were waiting for him at the grave, Ponette decides that must be the key and visits the grave regularly, waiting and waiting. There, she runs the living off because since she sees her mom in her dreams (though she doesn't realize they are dreams) and not when anyone else is present she figures her mom can only appear to her. Ponette is very difficult, but she is not unreasonable given what she "knows". If the possibility really existed, you'd have to commend her for her patience, will power, and perseverance.

VN: The brilliance of Doillon's film, other than the acting of his young leads is the fact he believably conveys the confusion between what people tell to Ponette to try to escape from her grief, to find solace in her heart and realize her mother is dead and can't come back. Her atheist father (Xavier Beauvois, who previously directed and starred in Don't Forget You're Going To Die) doesn't have the "finesse" and the "courtesy" to sugarcoat such a tragic happening "sugarcoated" tells her daughter what happened bare bones, "Your mommy is dead, she's not coming back". He's even enraged for her lack of responsibility, for having the kid with her while she had the car accident (Ponette suffered a broken arm), telling she was stupid (to which Ponette reacts saying she wasn't stupid, it wasn't her fault).

ML: The father's credibility is shot at the outset when he makes her spit promise that she'll never die. Ponette asks him, "When we get really old?" showing she understands there is a time when people are supposed to die, that the tragedy is that her mother was half a century from it, but her dad insists.

VN: Ponette's father decides to leave her to Aunt Claire (Claire Nebout), a strong Christian who faced with the question Ponette asks everybody (where's my mother and how can I talk to her again), she blindly provides Ponette with religious dogma, talking about Jesus' resurrection and spirit, things she's not ready to understand. This orthodoxy comes off as confusing to Ponette, but believing what her Aunt said she waits outside for her mother to come back, to talk to her again. She can't understand where her mother has gone, and how to get back to her.

ML: Unlike Ponette's father, Aunt Claire starts off well explaining that Ponette's mother can't come to her every night. But when Ponette's questions persist she succumbs to trying to console Ponette. First she contradicts what she just said telling Ponette her mom can come visit her every night if Ponette wants her too, which means when the mom doesn't show up Ponette will assume it was her fault for not willing it enough. Then Claire tells the Jesus story, transforming Ponette from a girl that only wants to sleep so she can be with mom to one that wants to split her time between sleeping and grave visiting so she can be with mom all day instead of half.

VN: Her cousins each have a different view on how to achieve Ponette's goal, and the other kids she meets at the school have other different views. One believes she needs a magic trick to bring her back, one that she needs to perform different trials to become worthy of God's attention, to finally be able to speak with him and her mother. This is too much for Ponette, who keeps trying and trying, but never succeeds. She comes to a point where grief is the only thing that she can feel. Nothing can get her mother back. She goes to the cemetery and lies down on her mother tomb, crying her eyes out not knowing what to do.

ML: All this religious stuff gets Ponette to thinking she wants to die so she can be in heaven with her mother. Killing a class bully is another option because he picks on her about her mother, but that doesn't help her see her mother any quicker. Sometimes the most dangerous thing in the world is religion because it always promises a place better than the one you are currently in, so if that's the case why would anyone want to wait to get there? That's why some religions figured out they needed a rule where people who commit suicide couldn't be allowed in. The scariest thing in the world is the religions that believe you go straight to the promised land if you die fighting "for god". How can you combat someone that believes the worst case scenario is they get to a better place quicker?

VN: People criticized the ending for being too contrived, but I can't see why it should be. Remember, she's a FOUR YEAR OLD kid, she's still able to imagine, to dream with her eyes open, she still can have faith in something. How do you explain the fact young kids believe in Santa or similar things? It's because they're not yet changed by the environment; their mind is still able to experience something that might seem unbelievable, "unnatural", or incoherent to us. At first I thought what Ponette was experiencing was a dream, but it can work both ways. Ponette finally copes with her grief, and understands the memory of her mother will always remain in her dreams, her thoughts but she'll never be able to see her mother "for real" again. The way it's delivered makes for a difficult understanding. It makes it seem like an unnecessary happy ending to such a strong study on childhood and such a realistic portrayal of what a kid might think, but after all it perfectly shows how a kid's dream can clash with reality. It also shows how a kid can go beyond the strict "rules" set by adults, the fact they don't believe in anything anymore, and find what she's looking for thanks to her naiveté, to her spontaneity to her faith.

ML: I think the ending works for the story Doillon is telling, but clashes with the style he's chosen to tell it. Thematically, her mother is the only person left that could set Ponette straight. Since most of us believe it could not actually happen, it does send a strong message that the mother "has to" come back to correct her actions because everyone on the planet is making things worse by filling her head with their muddled beliefs. Children can understand things that are tangible, like life has ended, but how can they differentiate things that require faith and belief, especially ones that are supposed to always be true like the resurrection from ones that are only supposed to be true until you know better like the Easter bunny? That said, it's hard to praise a film for its realism when it ends with the mom returning from the grave! I think he's chosen the right style to tell it, so I have to at least question the choice to have the mother return. However, the message is more important than the way it's conveyed here. If there were an easy answer there wouldn't still be a problem. This finish can seem a cheat, a cop out, but I think in a way it takes the film to another level because it confirms that it's not an anti-religious film. It is in fact a film about faith that shows its rewards, but also the many dangers since no one really knows what to be faithful in. It probably gives the film more credibility because you can't easily convince someone not to believe, but you can show them how slightly different beliefs can easily make everything run amuck.

VN: The most remarkable thing about Ponette is obviously the acting. Director Jacques Doillon toured France for months with a basic synopsis of what the film would be, then drew the script based on the children he met, their opinions, their vision of the world. The reason why the film is so realistic is because it's shot with the kids' POV in mind. The confusion on Ponette's mind is effectively conveyed, we understands why she might feel sad, because everybody keeps telling her different ways of reaching her goals, but she can't differentiate childish behavior like Ada's "child of god" trials, incoherent religious dogma like what her Aunt told her, backtracking when she realized she didn't exactly help her but instead generated more confusion in her mind. Victoire Thivisol is mesmerizing, she not only captures the screen with her emotions, but also displays incredible range, without overacting or sentimentalizing the material. Really, it's a defining moment in all of filmmaking. Such a young kid, doing such a great interpretation (great even compared to adult performances) and totally delivering the message of the film is something so fascinating. The film is like watching the world with a kid's eyes, and Ponette perfectly portrays that.

ML: I don't know how Thivisol got there, but the results are amazing. I'm sure Doillon also deserves a lot of credit for her performance. He wrote the film based on what he found from six months of dealing with these preschool kids, who he then cast, usually using their real first name and the name they would call the adult to keep it more intimate and realistic. Getting a child to tell you something once is one thing, getting them to repeat it for the camera in a way that retains the humor and spontaneity is quite a different one. Even if Thivisol was as great on her own as she comes across, which is obviously very doubtful, Doillon still had to have the guts to set up a project where he pushed children to a level of realistic emotion that few adults have been able to attain.

VN: The other kids are excellent as well, and also very different as far as personality, character and inclinations go. There's the religiously pretentious kid who feels like she's more important than the others, feels like she's a leader because she has some power over god. There's the all knowing one who goes into rants about Jews, Arabs and Catholics (in a hilarious way, for example saying Arabs are Catholic because they're not Jewish). There's Mathiaz, who seems emotionally interested in Ponette and tries to protect her, to make her change her mind when she decides she doesn't want to live anymore. The kids are so believable, so effective that Doillon's masterful work with them can't be denied.

ML:Yeah, the children's ideas about religious are really funny. They believe Ada (Leopaldine Serre) is the only "child of god" at day care, and that gives her the power to order god around a little. She puts Ponette through such religious trials as staying in a closed dumpster for five minutes to prove her worth to god. Ponette's cousin Delphine (Delphine Schiltz) thinks that Arabs are Catholics, except the ones that are half-Catholic half-Jewish. This stuff reminds me of my former neighbor, who when asked what religion she was said she didn't know but "we must be the same religion because we speak the same language." The point of all this stuff is not comedy though. It shows the children's thirst for power, for knowledge, for understanding. Again some of it is unrealistic and some of it is misunderstood, but in both cases to get in touch with reality and to understand things the children need to be included, to be told the truth from the outset so they can get it straight and keep things right.

VN: The film is often tragic, but there is also a great representation of the "society" where the kids live in, full of hilarious moments, but also some brutal ones (like the kid who tells Ponette the reason why her mother is dead lies in her behavior. Since she was a "bad person", her mother died). Kid are as true as they come, as spontaneous as possible, and that might be a double-edged sword because of their unpredictability. What Doillon has done, using them in such an effective way, portraying them for what they really are, like adults only without the ability to comprehend what's the truth between an ocean of opinions, of dogma, of lies. It's an amazing achievement, for the acting, for the message and for the non-conventional (at least in comparison to Hollywood) way the kids are used.

ML: This was an odd review for me because I'm writing "with" a person who has since died about a movie where Marie Trintignant, who died over the summer at the age of 41, plays the young mother that comes back from the dead. I don't know, or care, where they are buried, but a part of them lives in my memory, just as Ponette's mom lives in hers.


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