“Your mummy is dead,” her father says, “you know what that means?” This scene and the remaining ninety minutes of the film shows she does not. Play – sliding down the screen of the car – interrupts any concentration on the reality of death. Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996) is not concerned with creating another adult coming-to-terms story focused on the lack of motion, but one so integrated in the child’s gaze, in the continual flow of life.
All the four-year-old Ponette wants is to see her mother again, which the audience knows is impossible. She undertakes a grounded journey, of near-religious fervour, with resonances of the myth of Orpheus on his quest to retrieve his wife from the underworld. She begins waiting for her mother to appear to her like Jesus from the tomb. Drifts from person-to-person, child-to-child, who claim to know ways of fulfilling her desires. The playground game, the floor is lava, becomes a test by God, to prove that she is “a child of God”. Another child offers magic candy, each colour has its own power, except yellow. The way she moves is almost allegorical for the adult’s world of differing rituals and religions.
Adults in the film are almost as faceless as the trees, no more than minor objects on the stage. Therefore, the film is entirely commanded by children, almost surrealist in quality. Imagination is given free rein to make meaning up in the real world. The children talk of serious, adult topics like bachelors, marriage, and killing one another with such semantic detachment, naivety. Without a dominant presence of adults to set firm, rationalist limits, reality is fluid. All this allows the return of her mother (temporarily) in “flesh and blood”. A scene of desperation, Ponette alone, digging at the soil of the grave, speaking through the hole to her mother. Her mother walking up behind her was enough to make me, a student of dark literature, sob.
It was a beautiful moment, which I would say almost definitely makes this film as remarkable as it is. Her mother walks her to safety, playing with her, lending her a jumper to wear. The appearance of the red jumper is the challenge to claims of hallucinations or daydreaming. Not even her father contests her narrative: “I haven’t seen that in a long time”. And we must avoid trying to fit the film into Western rational framework. The film leaves it uncontested because it is unimportant whether this was real or not. The fulfilment of her desires was real enough to Ponette, and enabled her to move on. That is all that admires.
Had it not been populated with children, Ponette could have been another soppy coming-to-terms story: protagonist sitting in a bathtub, cold air lingering on the windowpane; they lay there in reflection as if on a dry rock in the middle of a rapids. Time does not stop in Ponette, nor does the fact of life. While the film could have easily done without the moral lesson voiceover at the end, giving it circularity, it is inconsequential to this film’s remarkable take on death.