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Ponette is quite simply one of the most unique experiences in movie-watching. I hesitate to call it a flawless work of art, although I did put the film on my top ten list the other day. Remember, though, that my top ten is fluid -- I put movies in there that were interesting, or special, in some form or another, and, really, I could have put more than ten films on the list if I could. In any case, Ponette may not be perfection, but it is a special experience.
Just describing the premise of the film will tell you how bold this film is. The film is about a girl named Ponette who, as the film begins, has just lost her mother in a traffic accident. She, being of a young age, finds it very hard to deal with the loss of a person so close to her, and the progression of the film is a gaining of what little understanding she can get at her age.
Now, Ponette -- and the girl who plays her -- is all of four years old.
A four year old. How could a four year old be in a movie --and a movie about this subject? It would be one thing, if the child were merely a supporting player, but she is the lead, and is in every scene in the film. How is this possible?
There are many scenes in this movie that are absolutely stunning, and powerful. The first time I watched this film, a number of years ago, I could not believe what I was seeing. At that time, I knew that, if I were a compulsive sobber, I would have needed the entire box of Kleenex. Of course, I could hold everything back -- but God, it was very difficult. It is hard not to want to cry for this poor girl.
For much of the first part of the film, Ponette is withdrawn, which creates a minor rift between her and her slightly older cousins, who complain to her that she is mean. Later on, after a fight with another kid on the playground, she tells her cousin that she wants him to make me die, in hopes that maybe this will return her to her mother (shes already heard all the complex and contradictory theories about death and heaven from a number of people). Scenes like these two examples prove that there can be intense, quiet drama even amongst kids of four and older -- the camera records this with real interest, with the frequent close-ups of the kids faces; the movie is very curious about the interactions between them.
I think the reason that some people, including myself, might find this film hard to bear, is just the thought of this cute four year old, emotionally suffering. Its one thing to see adults break down in a film, and even one thing to see kids turn on the waterworks in a sappy family film just for melodramatic effect, but its quite another thing to see someone as young as Ponette go through a traumatic experience for an entire film. Theres nothing cutesy about seeing Ponette sobbing when one of the kids on the playground teases her by saying that her mother died because Ponette was mean to her, or during a scene near the end of the film when shes at the mothers grave, digging the dirt around it, as if this would help her mother crawl out.
Knowing that Victoire Thivisol, the girl who plays Ponette, is so young makes you wonder what emotions she went through during the filming. And thats why I think its easy to feel for her. This doesnt look like acting. Is it acting at all? Just thinking about it would make me a little misty. If you dont feel any sort of emotion at all while watching this film, then you have a bit of a problem, I would say.
The fact of this child is so overpowering, that I think people might miss a potentially subversive element to this storyline, something I only fully realized during this third viewing. Most of this movie has to do with Ponettes flimsy understanding of the meaning of death, and also, her flimsy understanding of religious iconography and meanings, etc. She is told, first, the story of the resurrection of Jesus, and naturally assumes that this must mean that her mother will also be resurrected. Ponette says, basically, that her mother has a better reason to come back, because shes her mom, while Jesus would only be brought back to life for his friends. Later, she tries to get help from another kid who claims to be a child of God, and who will help her go through trials so she too can be a child of God, thereby being able to come in contact with God, in hopes of being able to talk with her mother. Ponette is so young, so inexperienced, so lacking, naturally, in more rational ideas, that she takes all of this absolutely seriously. So whats this saying? Ponette is too young, and emotionally distraught, so her gullibility can be excused -- but when adults believe blindly in this stuff, its easy for someone like me to say that they ought to think about whether to take this stuff with a grain of salt.
You must have an open mind when you watch this film. There are a few adults, but are solely in the film to advance the plot, nothing more. Children are the highlight of this film; they are in all the scenes, and we see these kids in their natural environment. The kids act like kids, not like little adults. Many times they say and do odd things, that will throw you off occasionally, until you realize that real kids do act like this. Real kids do occasionally contradict themselves, have their own little fantasy worlds, or just basically act silly --- this is a real childrens film. Many of these scenes feel like little documentaries, because you wonder how much is scripted and how much is real (although, surely, everything in this film is scripted and planned). You must look at this film, as best you can, through the eyes of someone like Ponette -- you must be able to at least sympathize with her, and her friends. You must be able to see the world as a little kid might. If you do, this movie is one amazing piece of work, absolutely. We see how children react to a very heavy topic -- and the result is that the movie seems as if it has everything right.
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Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up to Age 4