Ponette (1996)

Victoire Thivisol was four years old when she played Ponette, a girl struggling to understand her mother’s death in a car accident. The range and depth of emotion she displays makes me a little worried about what director Jacques Doillon did to coax the performance out of her. Thivisol became the youngest actress to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, an honor for which Doillon gave her a puppy, as well.
At her mother’s funeral, Ponette’s young cousin Mathias tells her that her mother cannot come up from her grave because “they put a heavy cross on you to keep you in.” He adds, “Only zombies can come out.” As we watch Ponette try to adjust to her shattered world, it becomes clear that she has a heavy cross to bear herself.
Intending to comfort her, Ponette’s aunt Claire tells her the story of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. What the girl hears, though, is that she needs to sit and wait and not play until her mother comes back to life. Later, a Jewish girl at Ponette’s school leads her through a series of trials, such as traversing the ground they are pretending is made of lava, so that she can become a “child of God” and persuade God to listen to her prayers.
Doillon films many of Ponette’s scenes from a child’s eye perspective reminiscent of the “tatami level” point of view Yasujiro Ozu used in his films.  This camera placement, as well as the extraordinarily articulate performances of Thivisol and the other child actors in the film, gives their scenes a disconcertingly adult feel, an effect Doillon uses to emphasize the similarity between Ponette’s questions and those adults continue to grapple with their entire lives.

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