PONETTE (France, 1996) *** 1/2
This movie is unusual and the successful result of experimental techniques. It is also in the French tradition of exploring childhood and adolescence. Hollywood mostly shows the young the way the studios or the adults imagine them to be or wish them to be -- though some fine pictures have come out of this approach. France shows them as they are, and mostly from the children's point of view.
The Gallic gems include works such as "Poil de Carotte," "Crainquebille,"" La Maternelle, "" Zero for Conduct," "The Two of Us," Truffaut's "Les Mistons" and "Small Change." The long list is unfamiliar to American audiences except for Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Louis Malle's "Murmur of the Heart," and " Au Revoir les Enfants." The 1951 classic "Forbidden Games" links the most closely to "Ponette" through the theme of death as seen by orphaned five-year-old Brigitte Fossey.
The story of Ponettte could be called high-concept, summarized in a single sentence. "Four year-old Ponette loses her mother in a car accident, cannot accept her absence, waits for her to come back from the dead." But this is not a simple concept like "U.S. boxer Stallone beats the Russian champion."
Ponette's grief and her hopes for Maman's return do not abate. It is understandable in a girl who thinks of her beloved rag doll as a living creature.
When the child's loving father must go to Lyon on business, he leaves her for some time with his sister-in-law and her two kids. The.little cousins, with alternating seriousness, playfulness and teasing, tell her that dead is dead: "Papi (Grandpa) did not come back from the dead." Ponette's wonderful, poetic reply :"It's because no one waited for him."
The solidly Catholic aunt (who reminded me of Barbara Hershey) has her own ideas about Resurrection ("like Jesus") or the power of God. Symbolic or contradictory abstractions confuse Ponette who firmly believes that Maman will materialize. When Ponette's father, an agnostic, returns, he is irritated at Auntie's approach. "God is for the dead. Leave Him alone."
Cut to a summertime boarding school in which mostly children somewhat older than Ponette --all extremely well observed and well played -- contribute their own theories or advice. There is as well much hilarious talk on subjects ranging from suppositories, to what "single people" means and who/what are the Jews.
On all matters Ponette is referred to supervisor Aurelie, and to Jewish schoolmate Ada "who know everything." "How is it that Ada knows all about Jews?" Answer: "Because Jesus was a Jew." Then comes an amusing discussion which confuses Catholic, Arabs and Jews in fanciful ways.
The dialogue, naive, fresh, imaginative, is not fabricated comic relief but typical of genuine talk of French chidren who, like so many in France, possess an astoundingly rich and grammatical vocabulary. The single error here is when Ponette says "J'ai mal a ma tete."
Aurelie tries to help Ponette by introducing her to prayer. Ada -- who says she is a Child of God -- and pal Mathieu, want Ponette to become one. This entails passing a number of physical tests. e.g. a five-minute stay in a dumpster. With elegant kindness Ada times this out after one minute.
When Ponette sleeps, she speaks to Maman who even visiits her once. "She smelled good." But as she is reaching utter despair, something good and magical happens. I can only disclose that the girl is "cured," accepts death's finality and starts out on the road to a normal life. After a single viewing I am still undecided: Is the ending hokey or is it a convincing culmination of a child's imagination?
Since 1972 writer-director Jacques Doillon has made some 20 features, plus shorts and movies for televison. Though unknown in the U.S., he is much admired in France for his original, intimate subjects (many of them about young people), his skills with actors, his ear and eye for real life, his sympathetic and empathetic analyses and techniques. For example, here the camera stays almost always on the girl, with many closeups, yet smooth framing variations prevent monotony.
Doillon sent video crews to French preschools all over. Four- and five-year-olds were taped in interviews that elicited opinions on many topics, including death. He then set up workshops, playing games, talking, doing skits with the selected children. This went on for six months. Then he wrote the screenplay using the workshop dialogues, and cast the children.
The movie spends an absolute, minimal time on adults and their backgrounds. In spite of unspecified times and places there is no feeling of incompleteness. The grownups screen is both necessary and sufficient. The older people are the supporting cast to the children, who themselves are the supporting cast for Ponette. The story belongs to Ponette.
Superbly directed Victoire Thivisol becomes as real as a documentary shot by a hidden camera. Doillon, with no maudliness, recreates a specific case among universal traumas, in ways never quite seen before on the screen.