The latest film from mercurial French auteur Jacques Doillon proves to be one of his best, a searing portrait of a little girl whose mother is killed in a car accident. Centering on an astonishing performance from 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol, pic is both harrowing and touching, though a certain repetitiveness and looseness will try the patience of some viewers. Nevertheless, this is a major film portrait of the world of a child.
Pic begins abruptly with little Ponette recovering in hospital from the accident that killed her mother; she has a broken arm. Her heartbroken father (movingly played by director Xavier Beauvois) tries, ineffectually, to comfort the distraught child, who can barely comprehend what happened. Soon after, the father has to go away on business and leaves the child with her aunt and cousins.
The aunt (Claire Nebout) assures the bewildered moppet that her mother is with Jesus, who himself rose from the dead. Ponette can’t see why her mother won’t rise from the dead also, and prepares to welcome her. Other adults give her different messages about the whereabouts of her mother and how to communicate with her (by prayer via God, one tells her) while a friend about her own age assures her that her mother died because Ponette was a bad girl. On his return, the father, who doesn’t believe in God, further confuses the child when he tells her, “God’s not for us.” Doillon trenchantly indicates how all this conflicting information affects the little girl.
Eventually, Ponette is placed in what appears to be a boarding school, or perhaps summer camp, where her loneliness and disorientation increase. She goes off alone to visit her mother’s freshly dug grave, paving the way for an astonishingly spiritual scene.
Doillon’s patience, skill and sensitivity in getting young Thivisol, and the other sprigs in the film, to give realistic, accomplished performances cannot be overstimated. Like Rolf de Heer’s “The Quiet Room” (in competition at Cannes this year), this is an astonishing insight into the mind and the sensibilities of a child, but whether audiences can be persuaded to pay to experience this child’s epiphany is an open question.
The adult thesps, including Marie Trintignant, who has a key scene as the dead mother, handle their roles sensitively, but the film belongs to the remarkable child actors and the director. Backgrounds, in the scenic Rhone-Alps district, are handsomely shot by Caroline Champetier, who also frames the youngsters with care and precision. All other credits are excellent.