Les Inrockuptibles wrote:
A 4-year-old child loses her mother. From this violent and irremediable situation, Jacques Doillon builds with Ponette a relentless film on pain and confinement. Contrary to the usual creamy imagery, he recreates with force and truth the magical and cruel world of childhood, a secret universe where adults have no place.
Roger Ebert wrote:
Played by Victoire Thivisol, Ponette is a small, blond, round-faced girl, very solemn much of the time, and the film follows her with an intensity that requires her to give a real performance–not as a “child actor,” but as a real actor who has to negotiate tricky dialogue and situations. She does. “In the matter of child acting,” writes Stanley Kauffmann, “this is the most extraordinary picture I know.” (Thivisol’s performance won the best actress award at the 1996 Venice Film Festival.)
In preparing the dialogue for Ponette and her young friends, Jacques Doillon, the writer-director, interviewed hundreds of children, I understand. What he captures is the logical way that kids proceed from what little they know to what, therefore, must be the case. As Ponette copes with the fact that her mother is in a coffin and will soon be under the ground, her little friend explains about crucifixes and pillows under the head and what happens to bodies after a long time, and adds helpfully: “I like living above ground. I really hate skulls.”
Whether Ponette understands the finality of death in an adult way is a good question. Certainly she misses her mother, and is not consoled by her aunt’s stories about Jesus and resurrection. If Jesus gets to rise from the dead, she asks not unreasonably, why can’t her mother? And if it’s true, as she’s told, that the dead sometimes like to have little gifts or keepsakes left in their coffin to remember things by, then why not offer her mother even larger gifts? There is a scene where Ponette stands fiercely under the empty sky, holding up the offerings she has selected, hoping her mother will come down for them.
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