There often seems to be a stigma when it comes to awarding child performances at the Academy Awards. In the entire history of the institution, there have only been two winners that were pre-teens, and only a handful of others who just scored a nomination. Sure, there is the school of thought that if a performer is giving a great performance at such a young age, there will likely be time to reward them again in the future. Yet, there are some child performances which you witness that completely knock you out and leave you with no doubt that you have seen something truly incredible regardless of age. This is how I felt after watching the 1996 French film Ponette from director Jacques Doillon in which a four-year-old girl has to come to terms with losing her mother in a car crash. This is heavy subject matter for any performer, but seeing this real-life four-year-old actress effortlessly pull off this challenge is something truly incredible that deserves all the praise. The film can be quite heart wrenching, but ultimately it is a very satisfying look at accepting death as a natural part of life.
We first see the titular Ponette (Victoire Thivisol, Chocolat) in the hospital after she has just received a cast for her broken arm. She will soon find out that the car crash which broke her arm has claimed the life of her mother. Ponette’s father (Xavier Beauvois) is filled with anger for his wife, a woman who he was separated from but still cared for a great deal. His anger is the irrational kind that often accompanies an unexpected death; the wish that she had been just a bit more careful where everyone’s lives would not have been forever changed. As he delivers the news to his daughter, we get our first sense of how much Ponette truly understands about what is happening and how deeply it is affecting her. The sudden contortion of Thivisol’s face is the type of image that will instantly break your heart as you concurrently find yourself struck by how mature she is carrying her grief. The balancing of base-level childish anguish with a faux-maturity that comes with the hubris of being young is pitch-perfect at every turn.
Unfortunately for Ponette, this is not the end of her woes. While she is technically not alone in this world, her father does choose to leave her with her Aunt Claire (Claire Nebout), and her cousins Matiaz (Matiaz Bureau Caton) and Delphine (Delphine Schiltz). It is in this context, along with the boarding school the trio of youngsters will be sent to later, where the film really shows its strength. There are adults throughout the story that attempt to help Ponette contextualize her grief and give her guidance toward moving forward with her life, but most of the film is made of interactions between children. The comments that her cousins and other children make to Ponette can vary wildly from sweet to misguided to outright cruel. Ponette is perplexed by all of the different religious ideas that are getting twisted by every person she meets, and all she wants is to be able to see her mother again. Ponette has no interest in being a “normal” kid and playing with others; she is going to wait for her mother to return and do everything in her power to ensure God knows that is what she wants.
Ponette is not a film that I could confidently say is an enjoyable watch, but it is a film that will hit you emotionally like a ton of bricks. While Ponette herself may not do much outside of hopelessly searching for her mother, the context of every single attempt and conversation is varied and deeply impactful in their own way. At just over 90 minutes, the film does not overstay its welcome in a way that leaves you in a cloud of darkness. As a matter of fact, there have been some viewers who have complained that the ending goes a bit too easy on Ponette and betrays the grief she is feeling, but for this particular viewer the film culminates in a cathartic manner that allows this journey to feel complete and worthwhile. I have said it before, but Victoire Thivisol gives one of the strongest youth performances I have ever seen committed to film. Never did I feel like she was ever reading cue cards or looking off screen in order to be coached in any particular manner. She was Ponette, and because of this you really dive into the emotional waters right alongside her. This film is an emotional juggernaut that should be witnessed by those who feel they are ready to tackle a narrative such as this.
Ponette comes to Blu-Ray with a new digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer in its original OAR from a master of an unknown source. The presentation is just a hair away from excellent, but it looks really quite fetching throughout most of the runtime. There are occasional minor specks of print damage, but overall clarity and detail is mighty impressive. The biggest issue I found with this transfer is a really brief 15-second shot near the end that has a light blue line running vertically that seems to be a source issue. This is not a film with involved production design thanks to the prevalence of exterior shots, but there are elements both in the houses and in nature that are easily noticeable thanks to this transfer. The picture tends to run a bit soft in long shots, likely to be contributed to the source material, but colors are well saturated in a visually splendid way. Skin tones are natural and consistent with subtle facial features easily noticeable in closeup. Black levels hold up well with very little in the way of crush. Digital noise does not present as a major issue here. This new presentation is very beautiful and likely looks better than it ever has before. Kino Classics has done a fantastic job with this one.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a very capable DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track in the original French with optional English subtitles. The moving score sounds great throughout the duration of the film, as it settles you into the emotions of the young characters. There are never moments where it threatens to overwhelm the dialogue, as the track maintains a good balance so that dialogue comes through clearly. Environmental sounds such as weather effects are rendered well alongside everything else. There does not seem to be any majorly noticeable instances of age-related wear and tear. Kino Classics has given this film the perfectly preserved, faithful audio presentation it deserves.
- Audio Commentary: Film Historian Samm Deighan provides a very engaging and informative commentary track in which she discusses the creative team behind the film, the international acclaim of the feature, the method of getting performances from the young actors, the look of the film, cinematic connections to the feature and much more. Not only will you learn a lot about this film, you will also add a ton of films to your watchlist to seek out.
- Trailers: The two-and-a-half minute trailer for Ponette is provided here with English narration. There are also trailers provided for Tous les matins du monde and Under the Sand.
Ponette is a film that truly snuck up on me in regards to how much I loved it. The performance from four-year-old Victoire Thivisol is a revelation that should not be discarded solely due to her age. She takes you on a journey of confusion and grief that rivals any of the great performers from the annals of cinema. Kino Classics has delivered a Blu-Ray for this one that sports a beautiful A/V presentation along with an informative commentary track. This film is something really special. Highly Recommended
Ponette is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.