(Won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1996 over Oyanka Cabezas in "Carla's Song" and Irene Papas in "Party")
In her role as a girl who suddenly loses her mother Victoire Thivisol (Four years old during the filming of "Ponette") has emotion and sentiment on her side; rarely are children afforded an entire feature-length picture with which to display such a wrenching sense of loss. It's understandable since surely people as young and technically fledgling are somewhat of a loose cannon -- few kids beyond Jackie Cooper have commanded continual respect as a leading character actor. Thivisol never again attained the level of admiration she managed with this performance, but at the age of 19 one would certainly never count her out. A follow-up role in Chocolat brought promise, and she is still working, so perhaps if a hefty role comes her way she may become the next Marion Cotillard, however much you view that as a success.
"Ponette" is a brave film, not least because most of the dialogue centres around infant playground chatter, innocent remonstrations on religion and whether when people die they are truly "gone". Writer/Director Jacques Doillon modifies religious scepticism to accomodate the naivety of youth, and rarely over-calculates the spats Ponette has with her wily friends. He recognises the whys and why nots of grief, the struggle of accepting loss, and especially the problems that children have with understanding ideological difference (or indifference) in adults. Ponette's early reaction to the death of her mother -- a result of a motor accident involving the two -- is churlish, stroppy, as she clambers atop a car, part-rebelliously and somewhat uncertain of how such a vehicle has contributed so heavily to her mother's demise. Thivisol immediately asserts that Ponette is thinking about her situation, not merely reacting to finality by bursting into tears and stamping her feet. She accepts the "death" but evidently doesn't know how it will affect her life, whether she should even cry, since her father has confronted the event with a boulder-like sense of resentment. Even at such a dizzyingly-unidentifiable age Thivisol is able to impart an impressive amount of detail into the relationship she has with her father, reacting to him with fluid, unrehearsed fear, and recognises that this fear stems from emotional-not-physical abuse. Her later scenes with him possess a more aggressive dynamic, and you can see that Ponette wants him to cry, to confirm the pain that she is feeling instead of launching into a verbal coming-to-terms speech that doesn't help to explain what is buzzing around inside of her head.
Thivisol's emotional intelligence is such that even the intermitten breakdowns that come from prayers that don't produce, kids that attack her weakness, a growing inner-conflict between faith and logic, are telegraphed as waves of uncertain emotion, rather than wailing releases of surefire showmanship. She palpably wrestles with the internal unanswered questions we ask ourselves when someone dies, and therefore captures grief in its purest form. Keisha Castle-Hughes' Paikea also had an absent mother in 2003's "Whale Rider" (a role that made 13 year-old Castle-Hughes the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at the Oscars), and while I admire that performance immensely her efforts feel more orchestrated (either by her or Director Niki Caro) to generate sympathy for their protagonist. Thivisol benefits from the fly-on-the-wall style of her director, occasionally unsure of where to look and what to do, and subsequently the plight of Ponette is a much looser, organic prospect. Even at her blankest moments of extreme close-up Thivisol is crafting something for herself and the film, which I find astonishing given the enormity of the task involved and the obvious limitations imposed by her minimal acting experience.
In the late stages of Doillon's film Ponette is crouched over the grave of her deceased mother, clawing at the soil that separates her from the source of parental affection that she isn't getting elsewhere. When asked about this scene, or more specifically about how she managed to make herself cry, Victoire replied that it was normal for Ponette to cry because her mother was dead. It's an observation that only serves to reinforce the instinctual impression Thivisol brings to "Ponette", a generous respondent to her Director's studious childhood melancholy.