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Poignant Ponette

Lost in Time: Victoire Thivisol plays a young girl who loses her mother in 'Ponette.'

French film focuses at a child's level

By Richard von Busack

PONETTE (Victoire Thivisol), a child barely past the toddler stage, has just learned of her mother's death. Still wearing a cast from the broken arm she received in the car accident that orphaned her, Ponette is brought back to school in the mountains; in the gray daylight of the approaching winter, she plays with the other children. The new French film Ponette is about 4-year-olds and their perception of the world; actors under the age of 5 are onscreen, unaccompanied, for about two-thirds of the film's running time. Jacques Doillon's movie displays plenty of integrity, even if it isn't very interesting. In fact, it reminds the viewer that people are customarily paid money to watch groups of children.

Until the emotional sucker punch of a fantasy ending, the movie is tough-minded. The children around our heroine are sometimes cruel, and the few adults present confuse Ponette with conflicting views of the afterlife, through either too-ardent Christianity or too-ardent atheism. Otherwise, the lack of consolation offered Ponette is remarkable. I know Europeans think that Americans are soppy about children (as well we should be; they are our national symbol, like bald eagles). Still, the girl is quickly thrown back into school after the accident, without anyone's making much of an effort to talk to her or to console her. And her father heads off ... where? To Eurodisneyland? Some place where he can't be with his daughter, certainly, right when she needs him the most.

It's uncertain whether Doillon has kept Ponette's time structure vague in order to reflect a kid's view of the passing of time or because he is more interested in presenting his footage of children playing than he is in filling in the background of the story. Doillon successfully harvests the audience's tears through an unexpected trick at the finale--the film goes from existential mourning to a scene of supernatural consolation in a twinkling. This is effective but a little dishonest compared to the chilly tragedy of what's come before. Young Thivisol is a natural and disarming performer, too young for trickery. Ponette, however, is too long to watch without fidgeting, so tender that it crumbles away.

Ponette (Unrated; 92 min.), directed and written by Jacques Doillon, photographed by Caroline Champetier and starring Victoire Thivisol.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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