At 4½ years old, Victoire Thivisol may be the youngest person to win a Best Actress award (Venice Film Festival, 1996). In fact, because of her age and the emotional strength of the story, it’s hard to know whether she is acting or “pretending.”
Ponette (Thivisol) and her mother were in a car crash, and her mother did not survive. Her father is hurt, angry, scared, and protective. Ponette is sad, and at only 4½ years of age, confused by her loss.
Father is reluctant to leave Ponette, but he must attend to some business. He leaves Ponette with her aunt and cousins, who are also about the same age.
With her dad out of the picture, the camera follows Ponette and her cousins more closely. The younger of her two cousins explains what he knows about death, which only involves bodies, burials, and zombies. Her older cousin tries to comfort her and make her forget about her mother. Ponette only knows that her mother will come back if only she waits long enough.
Ponette’s aunt sees her waiting for hours at a time and tries to comfort her with stories of Jesus and Heaven. Ironically, her stories only reinforce Ponette’s conviction that resurrection is possible and that all she has to do is wait long enough or try hard enough.
Her father comes back after a week and is angry that she’s still waiting for her mother. An apparent atheist, he’s also very unhappy with his sister’s talk of Jesus and God. He tells Ponette to live in this world with him and with her cousins, the world of the living.
Soon the children are off to boarding school. With father gone again, Ponette starts learning what she can about Jesus and death from her classmates and teachers. One of her new friends is a Jewish girl who is known as a “Child of God.” The Child of God got her moniker by performing feats of playground bravery. If Ponette can become a Child of God, maybe then her mother will come back.
Although the subject is depressing, the movie isn’t. The children are so young that they can’t be depressed about death because they don’t understand it. Instead the movie is about the kids playing and talking and fighting to understand the nature of death. The movie’s tone is not one of sadness but of curiosity.
Picture & Sound
The picture quality of the DVD is very good. The colors are rich and solid. The movie consists largely of closeups and each face is sharp and clear.
The film was theatrically released in a widescreen format — in fact, the credits are presented in this wider aspect ratio — but the movie is only presented in full-frame pan and scan. Ordinarily I would say this is a strike against the disc. However, in the case of Ponette, the larger picture means we can see the faces more intimately. The emotional impact would probably have been less had it not filled the full screen.
Also, much of the action involves children playing, talking, and being themselves. In order to keep up, the camera is often hand-held and constantly moving. Careful framing was clearly not of high importance. There is no indication that the decision to use pan and scan was deliberate, but it was a good choice nonetheless.
The DVD’s sound is fine, althoughPonette is not the type of movie that really gives your home theater a workout. Also, because the film is in French, unclear dialogue would have gone unnoticed anyway.Ponette has very little music except for a track at the beginning and at the end, so even if the sound were horrible, it would have had very little effect on the enjoyment of the movie.
The features of this disc were disappointing. For one thing, the subtitles are hard-wired. One of the great strengths of DVD is that you can encode subtitles on a separate track, and thus control how and when they appear on-screen. I can’t understand why Fox Lorber didn’t take advantage of this functionality. To be honest, I never would have turned the titles off, but Francophonic cinephiles will no doubt be disappointed.
I was also disappointed that the film was not presented in its original aspect ratio. I already said that a full-frame version was probably preferable, but it would have been nice to have the choice.
Finally,Ponette is the kind of amazing film that just begs to be explored further. How did Thivisol behave on the set? Was she acting or was she pretending? Was there a script or was it ad-libbed? A track of director commentary for this film would be as engrossing as the movie. But there is no commentary track, no behind-the-scenes production notes.
There are some special features on the disc, including a U.S. theatrical trailer, as well as a listing of awards. There are filmographies for the adults in the film, and there are nine chapter stops.
This disc is definitely worth a look, but not for its feature set. The reason to see it is because it’s the best-looking display of Thivisol’s amazing, moving performance, this side of a 35mm print.