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Ponette (1996)


Thom
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Have you seen Make Way for Tomorrow yet?

Yes. That is a tearjerker too.

... Everyone makes every effort to help her make sense of her mother's death, but their explanations necessarily contradict each other and they seem to be more for the teller's benefit than for Ponette's.

I hope I don't drift into heresy here, but I think of faith, in general, as a kind of wish-fulfillment. It's a way of assigning a nice, clean narrative to our lives: I was born into a fallen world, I suffer through the toils of human history as written by God, but it's a story of redemption and will have a happy ending. That makes it so much easier for us to deliver platitudes when we're touched by horrific, senseless tragedy: "We can't understand God's perfect plan." "Your loved one is in a better place." "See? You may have suffered in the past, but look at this new joy in your life. Everything worked out for the best!"

I love that Ponette and Ordet both give lie to some of those platitudes ...

It's also fascinating, on repeat viewings, how the different things Ponette is told represent the gamut of different religious beliefs out there. Ada gives her a child's legalistic point of view. Delphine's religious explanations (on Catholics, Jews and Arabs) are both wrong and yet somehow make a sort of sense that might be closer to the truth than I first thought they were. One of the best parts of the film is just the facial expressions on these kids' faces when adults or friends start telling them something that actually makes no sense whatsoever.

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One of the best parts of the film is just the facial expressions on these kids' faces when adults or friends start telling them something that actually makes no sense whatsoever.

Exactly. That's the brilliance of the film's form -- always putting the camera on a child's face, always watching the face, never entering the child's subjectivity. There isn't a single eyeline match in the entire film. Even at the very end, when Ponette turns around to discover that her mother is gone, the camera stands some distance behind her. I'd argue that most of the things we tell each other as adults (like the conversations in Ordet) don't make a lot of sense either, which is what makes this film something special.

Edited by Darren H
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Thanks -- what a wonderful discussion! I saw this film in 2004 and was captivated by it. At that time, I wrote the following about it. Now, I'm going to have to watch it again, and see whether I have any different impressions of it.

Ponette is a movie you will replay in your mind for a long time. I keep remembering bits and pieces of it. The adults in the movie -- we'll leave aside Ponette's father, for now -- all sincerely try to answer Ponette's questions about death, and the after-life, to the best of their abilities, and it is hard to fault what they tell Ponette. It sounds reasonable, theologically. And yet, it is ultimately unsatisfying because, in the adults, an emotional disconnect has occurred at some point between what they say they believe and what they, deep down, really believe. Or perhaps this disconnect was always there for them -- it's impossible to tell.

Ponette has the kind of metaphysical purity and innocence that the nineteenth-century French philosopher Jules Lequyer praised in "The Hornbeam Leaf." Such questions! Such observations! No adult would think to say, as Ponette did, when her cousin pointed out that his grandfather didn't come back from the dead, "No one was waiting for him." No adult would think that it mattered whether anyone was waiting. Ponette's cousin may not share Ponette's convictions, but he takes them seriously. When his mother remarks to him that Ponette is "playing" at waiting for her mother to return, he corrects his mother: "No, she's really waiting."

Ponette's father, unlike the other adults in the movie, is an atheist. And yet, when Ponette is with him at the end of the movie, describing to him her just-concluded encounter with her mother, he makes no attempt to disillusion her, which is certainly unlike his earlier behavior. Why? Earlier in the movie, in a remarkable scene, we saw the tension between the two of them: his atheism, his attempt to impose it on her, and her unwillingness to accept it. How many four-year-olds could stand up to their fathers like that, and on something so important?

At the boarding school that Ponette attends, she meets Ada, who is called "a child of God" by the other kids, apparently because she openly asserts her (Jewish) faith. But surely it is Ponette who is a child of God. It is Ponette, alone among the children, who makes a real attempt to connect with God -- to speak to Him, and even, at times, to berate Him. After what she describes as her "second prayer," Ponette is already light-years ahead of the other children spiritually.

One review I read of this movie described Ponette as an "old soul." I agree, but would go beyond that: She has the potential someday to be a great spiritual leader, if her spirituality is not crushed out of her later. To me, this is the great "open question" at the end of the film: What becomes of such a soul? The vagaries of life being what they are, one can imagine that it could go either way for Ponette.

Perhaps, in the end, Ponette's father lets it go -- his daughter's fantastic tale of reuniting with her mother -- because something in her eyes, something in her mien, tells him that any further attempt to gainsay his daughter's faith would be futile.

Edited by tenpenny

For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment. – Maximus the Confessor

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Ponette is a movie you will replay in your mind for a long time. I keep remembering bits and pieces of it. The adults in the movie -- we'll leave aside Ponette's father, for now -- all sincerely try to answer Ponette's questions about death, and the after-life, to the best of their abilities, and it is hard to fault what they tell Ponette. It sounds reasonable, theologically. And yet, it is ultimately unsatisfying because, in the adults, an emotional disconnect has occurred at some point between what they say they believe and what they, deep down, really believe. Or perhaps this disconnect was always there for them -- it's impossible to tell.

Ponette has the kind of metaphysical purity and innocence that the nineteenth-century French philosopher Jules Lequyer praised in "The Hornbeam Leaf." Such questions! Such observations! No adult would think to say, as Ponette did, when her cousin pointed out that his grandfather didn't come back from the dead, "No one was waiting for him." No adult would think that it mattered whether anyone was waiting. Ponette's cousin may not share Ponette's convictions, but he takes them seriously. When his mother remarks to him that Ponette is "playing" at waiting for her mother to return, he corrects his mother: "No, she's really waiting."

Ponette's father, unlike the other adults in the movie, is an atheist. And yet, when Ponette is with him at the end of the movie, describing to him her just-concluded encounter with her mother, he makes no attempt to disillusion her, which is certainly unlike his earlier behavior. Why? Earlier in the movie, in a remarkable scene, we saw the tension between the two of them: his atheism, his attempt to impose it on her, and her unwillingness to accept it. How many four-year-olds could stand up to their fathers like that, and on something so important?

At the boarding school that Ponette attends, she meets Ada, who is called "a child of God" by the other kids, apparently because she openly asserts her (Jewish) faith. But surely it is Ponette who is a child of God. It is Ponette, alone among the children, who makes a real attempt to connect with God -- to speak to Him, and even, at times, to berate Him. After what she describes as her "second prayer," Ponette is already light-years ahead of the other children spiritually.

One review I read of this movie described Ponette as an "old soul." I agree, but would go beyond that: She has the potential someday to be a great spiritual leader, if her spirituality is not crushed out of her later. To me, this is the great "open question" at the end of the film: What becomes of such a soul? The vagaries of life being what they are, one can imagine that it could go either way for Ponette.

Perhaps, in the end, Ponette's father lets it go -- his daughter's fantastic tale of reuniting with her mother -- because something in her eyes, something in her mien, tells him that any further attempt to gainsay his daughter's faith would be futile.

Nice write-up, tenpenny. It's great to finally hear from some others who love the film.

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Due to all the recent discussion, I just caught Ponette again. It remains a mysterious, lovely film about grief and loss and innocence and abandonment. And I can't even believe these kids are acting. It's too natural, too real. It feels like a documentary. It's not a stretch to say that Thivisol has turned in one of the greatest performances of all time.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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