This review contains spoilers.
Victoire Thivisol delivers a perfect, unforgettable performance as a young girl who loses her mother in this unique French film about grief and childhood.
The first time I saw Ponette – for my French class in high school – I was unimpressed, to say the least. In my class report on it, I grudgingly admitted that 4-year-old star Victoire Thivisol gave a good performance, but the majority of the film was just kids acting silly. Three years later, I saw Ponette again, but this time, I had experienced the same loss that Ponette does: the sudden death of a parent. And this time, I was stunned. It was like watching a completely different movie. Your reaction to Ponette will also depend on how much experience you've had with grief and young children.
Supposedly, if any crew members on the set of Ponette called Victoire by her character's name, she explained to them that she was Victoire, not Ponette. Ponette was simply her role in the film, and they had to call her by her real name. You may doubt that a 4-year-old child could so completely grasp the difference between fantasy and reality, but after watching her shattering performance, you will have few doubts about what this girl can do.
The film opens with a close-up of Ponette sucking her thumb in a hospital bed while her father draws a dog on the cast that has just been applied to her arm. Her mother is in another part of the hospital, being treated for more serious injuries from the car crash that she and Ponette were in. "The doctors think she may die," Ponette's father tells her. In response to this, Ponette stares up at the ceiling.
Ponette's mother does die, and it soon becomes clear that her father had let his wife do all the parenting. He has no idea how to relate to his daughter, or even what to say to her, so he takes her to stay with her Aunt Claire and two young cousins, Matiaz and Delphine. On the way to Claire's, Ponette asks her father, "Will there be lions?" Her father is confused, but Ponette persists until she gets an answer she can understand ("If there are, your big dog will protect you"). Why she thinks there will be lions at her aunt's house is never explained, and therein lies one of the greatest strengths of the film. Rather than depict children as adults see them, this film depicts children as they see themselves, in a world where anything is possible.
Ponette, for her part, seems to understand that she can't depend on her father. When he wonders aloud, "How am I going to raise you by myself?" Ponette tearfully reassures him, "You'll manage." Later, Ponette and her dad exchange their favorite things before he leaves her with Claire. But instead of giving him her true favorite thing – the doll that she constantly clings to – she gives him her teddy bear. Like most little girls, Ponette plays that she is her doll's mother, and she refuses to abandon it like her mother abandoned her.
In an attempt to comfort her, Aunt Claire tells Ponette the story of Christ and the Resurrection. Ponette think that her mother, like Jesus, will resurrect from the dead. And with that, she embarks on a long, winding quest through her grief. At first, she waits for her mother to come back. She spends a whole day outdoors, staring up at the sky, waiting for her Maman to descend from the blue. (Maman is French for Mom or Mommy.) The scene is childhood innocence in its purest, most powerful form, and it is when you first realize what an amazing actress Victoire is. She projects both a hopeful patience and a fearful vulnerability as she waits, and when she lies down on the grass at the end of the day, still searching the dark sky, there is an old, world-weary sadness in her eyes.
When her mother doesn't show, Ponette tries to make her come back. Claire soon realizes her mistake and tells Ponette that although Jesus resurrected, her mother won't. But Ponette, with a steadfast faith that reminds me of Joan of Arc, refuses to be swayed. When Claire tells her that her mother is in Heaven, Ponette replies, with complete certainty, "She doesn't want to be. She wants to be here with me." Even when her cousin Matiaz tries to reason with her ("Dead people don't come back. Grandpa didn't come back."), even when her father yells at her ("How long will you wait for her? Are you crazy?"), Ponette's faith never wavers. She cannot and will not accept that her mother is gone for good.
For whatever reason, Ponette and her cousins, Matiaz and Delphine, are sent to a boarding school. (I didn't even know there were boarding schools for children that young.) There, Ponette's grief takes a darker turn. When her mother still does not come back, Ponette assumes that it is her fault, that she did something to drive her mother away. She withdraws from those around her and begins to disappear into a world of her own imagination. Late one night, Ponette climbs into bed with her cousin Matiaz and sobs, "I want to die. I want to disappear forever." She asks Matiaz to kill her so that she can be reunited with her mother. In a sweetly naive attempt to cheer her up, Matiaz gives her his favorite toy, his Batman action figure.
Finally, Ponette's faith is rewarded, and her mother does briefly, magically, resurrect for one last romp with her daughter. Nothing in the film prepares you for the mother's sudden appearance, and I will never forget how surprised I was it when I first saw it. Many critics (and viewers) have derided this reunion as a magical ending to a realistic film, but remember, this is a film that depicts very young children as they see themselves, in a world where anything is possible. Ponette's doll can talk. She can fly if she flaps her arms and runs fast enough. And if she believes hard enough, her mother can come back to her.
With lesser actresses, this crucial scene between Ponette and her Maman would fall apart. But fortunately, the mother is played by legendary French actress Marie Trintignant. She achieves far more chemistry with Victoire than anyone in the film, and the two create an immediate, intimate connection. It is only when we finally see the bond between Ponette and her mother that we realize how much Ponette has lost. Although Maman cannot do what her daughter wants and stay for good, she gives her daughter what she needs, what no one else has been able to give her: acceptance. Ponette finally accepts that Maman is gone, and more importantly, that Maman wants her to go on living and have a long, happy life. "She told me to learn to be happy," is the film's final line. (It is even more poignant in light of Marie Trintignant's untimely death; she was killed by her boyfriend in 2003.) This lesson of celebrating life is Maman's final gift to Ponette, and the film's gift to its viewers.
I am at a loss for words to describe Victoire's acting in this film. How a 4-year-old child achieved such a performance is a mystery best left to smarter minds than mine. (In fact, a recent documentary, Jouer Ponette, attempts to solve this mystery using behind-the-scenes footage from the film.) Victoire turns Ponette's grief into a complex emotional and physical experience. Although she delivers her lines flawlessly, her physical movements have always struck me as the most natural thing about her. When Ponette's father yells at her, she moves her shoulders in a hunching, defensive motion. And when a classmate teases her, saying, "When someone's mom dies, it's because her kid was bad!" Ponette runs across the playground and flings herself onto a tire swing, crying as she swings back and forth. Ponette's glances and sighs sometimes say more than pages of dialogue. Another notable performance comes from Matiaz Canton, who plays Ponette's adorably serious but caring cousin. Indeed, Matiaz is probably more concerned for Ponette than any of the adults in the film.
Although Ponette is superbly touching, I would not recommend it to everyone. It is not so much a film with a plot as it is a study of grief and childhood. Victoire is a brilliant actress, but she does spend much of her screentime crying. There are some humorous scenes, such as when Ponette's classmates try to puzzle out things like dating and religion, but these conversations go on a bit too long. It's also hard not to be appalled at the utter lack of adult supervision. If you are easily bored or depressed, you should probably stay away from Ponette. But if, like me, you've ever experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, then this film will touch a deep chord with you, one that will resonate for a long time.
This review has been contributed to Young Actress Reviews by Rebecca Cowie.