PONETTE (1997) – Heartbreaking children’s perspective on death

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The French import Ponette is one of the most devastatingly emotional movies I’ve ever seen.

It opens with a charming image: the 4-year-old title character sucking the open thumb of a broken arm encased in a cast. Sadly, that’s the last lighthearted image the movie conjures up for quite a while. It turns out that the cast is a result of a car accident that has killed Ponette’s mother.

Ponette’s father is of little help, having left Ponette with her unsympathetic cousins while he comes to terms with his grief. It is up to Ponette to deal with the blow as best as she can. She asks her cousins and their friends about death, and they try to help her with tortured theology pieced together from what they’ve been told by apathetic adults. And so Ponette tries this trick and that, hoping that eventually she’ll hit upon the right formula to bring her mother back.

Movies rarely seem to catch the way little children really talk and behave. This movie has it down pat, and it’s all the more heartbreaking for it. Without making it as explicit as a Hollywood production would, it’s obvious that these kids are having even more trouble than their parents in making sense of a senseless world.

And at the center of this story is Ponette, played by Victoire Thivisol in a performance that won her a film-festival award and universal raves. Her performance has nothing to do with the studied mannerisms and milkings of most child actors. Thivisol’s work here inspires many tears, but they are all earned.

The movie’s sole sore spot with reviewers has been its conclusion, which some people have tagged as compromisingly happy in a film that otherwise offers no easy answers. I prefer to think of the ending as hopeful. Yes, Ponette gets her mother back, but only for a short while, after which she must again cope with her grief. Ponette is smiling a little more by movie’s end, it’s true, but I was still crying as much as I was at the start.

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