it happens every summer: day one

summer isn't wasting any time with this one. this installment of queue de grâce begins with the devastating body blow that is jacques doillon's ponette (1996).

the film opens to find four year-old ponette in a hospital bed, arm in a cast. we soon learn that the cast is a result of a car accident that claimed her mother's life. her father, loving but stalled in the anger phase of his grieving process, takes her to stay with cousins in the country while he resumes work. we spend the remainder of the film watching ponette trying to navigate her inexorable grief, guided by well-meaning adults with the balm of religion and playmates with their miniature versions of those same rituals and magical thinking. i have never seen anything like the central performance in this film. victoire thivisol turns in a performance as a four year-old child that actors go their whole lives without coming close to. in fact, you can do away with the "child" appellation altogether. you may make the argument that she is reacting rather than acting, but it is as natural, raw, honest and open a display as i may have ever seen. cassavetes himself would have been proud. it was all of ten minutes before she reduced me to tears. her pain is so palpable it is nearly unbearable. to watch the complex set of emotions that register on her cherubic face as she tries everything she can think of to resurrect, communicate with and join her mother is to feel every bit of her loss. to watch her be cowed her father for her fruitless fixation on bringing her mother back and then see her resolve stiffen, standing there in front of him, as she regains her sense of herself and what she must do is just astounding. an equal amount of credit must be given to doillon's direction, as well. to create the environment where he could capture this performance speaks of a confidence and sensitivity almost unrivaled among his contemporaries and just the very basic device of shooting almost everything from her eye level, with sometimes claustrophobic closeups, exemplifies his ability to use technique to put you that much further into her universe. the film also serves to expose the contradictory nature of religion and the role it plays in bringing comfort to the afflicted. as you watch ponette go through "trials" dreamed up by playmates to get her closer to god, and therefore her mother, you realize that all the theology in the world unravels when a child tries to apply their logic to it. i will never understand humans and their silly and sad inability to just let a thing be unknown and not be so mortally terrified by it that they have to retrofit the inexplicable (for now, preternatural is the watchword) with metaphorical fairy tale origins and explanations. hiding in a garbage bin for five minutes or jumping off the highest bit of playground equipment to prove your bravery and devotion to earn a visit from your mother from beyond the veil is obviously a ridiculous notion that only a child could conceive of but a man made of dust, a woman made of his rib and a boat the size of new york city to house mating pairs of every animal in the world - that is not ridiculous at all. as you watch her clutch desperately for anything and everything, including suicide so she can just go to where her mother is with jesus, to make sense of her agony and confounding loss it certainly makes all of it seem childish, basically underscoring how peculiar it is that this behavior is not something most people leave behind once they reach the age of reason. the only misstep the film makes is in the final act when her mother indeed momentarily reappears to comfort and release ponette from her suffering. after going the whole film engaging in pitch perfect naturalism, this seems like the absolute wrong thing to do. maybe doillon couldn't live with the notion of making this child suffer so utterly and completely but i think it undermines the honesty, purity and dignity and everything that preceded it. even with that, though, i highly recommend it. i will make it a point to seek out a lot more of doillon's work and i will never forget this little girl.

we follow that with a much more standard variation on this theme with alfonso cuarón's a little princess (1995).

this is the second cinema adaptation of the children's novel by frances hodgson burnett, somewhat inspired by the first one which starred shirley temple in 1939. it is the story of a young girl, who has a gift for storytelling, whose idyllic childhood in india is interrupted by her father going off to fight world war one. he sends her to a boarding school in the interim where she encounters the things you would expect - group of lovable secondary moppets, harsh headmistress with a cruella de vil streak in her hair and her soul and freckled snotty bully. things go well for her until she receives word, during her birthday party, that her father has been killed in action. with her father's funds no longer at her disposal she is forced into a life of servitude at the school. not one to be easily subdued, she continues to entertain the other girls with her fantastic stories and holds fast to her belief in the transformative power of imagination. across the alley, conveniently enough, her father, not dead as it turns out, is being nursed back to health by a kindly old gentleman and his indian manservant after suffering the blinding, amnesia-inducing effects of a gas attack. as you might imagine, things look bleak for a while but the sun shines on the last act, everyone is reunited, the bully comes over to our side and the headmistress gets her comeuppance. happily ever after with a side of daddy issues. primarily, this suffered mightily just from its juxtaposition with ponette. almost anything was going to be a step down in performance but especially so when you follow it with a bunch of child actors being very child actor-y. it might be a little unfair but i cannot help but compare the two. in its favor, it is very well made and a joy to look at. the art direction is spectacular, minus a couple of really bad cgi moments. it did make me smile a time or two but the overriding feeling again has to do with contradiction. as much as i deeply love and respect my mother, the last time i remember wanting to be "mama's little man" was probably when i was about ten years old. i understood even then that i had a choice to make and that to be my own person i had to leave that behind, where it belongs. i would think the same rules apply to being "daddy's little girl". i wish more than anything that we lived in a culture where every woman knew that she was special and beautiful and strong, but this business about "didn't your daddy ever tell you that?" being the route to get there seems counterproductive. it seems like that is something you have to decide on your own. i understand the comfort to be found in waxing nostalgic about a time in your life when your happiness was looked after but the daddy thing is a bit regressive here, or anywhere, and it undermines the central idea of empowerment.

we end the day on a perfect note with a little restorative from adam elliot called mary and max (2009).

this beautifully rendered bit of australian claymation tells the story of a pair of outsiders - mary daisy dinkle, 8 years old, living in an endlessly brown australian suburb, fond of drinking condensed milk right from the can and max jerry horowitz, an overweight new york city dweller whose mental problems have made his world a very small, lonely and confusing one. one day, at random, mary chooses max's name out of the phone book and begins a correspondence with him that will see them through decades, a manslaughter case (thrown out), a marriage (dissolves when mary's husband turns out to be gay), a lottery win, and who knows how much chocolate. as mary's letters become increasingly difficult for max to answer, he eventually has a breakdown and is institutionalized for a time. while in the hospital, he is diagnosed with asperger's syndrome and this helps him develop strategies that make his life, and answering mary's letters, much more manageable. mary graduates with her psychology degree, inspired by her relationship with max, and writes a book about asperger's using max as her case study. max feels terribly betrayed by this and a rift develops between them that is the catalyst for a serious downturn in mary's life. max eventually forgives her, though, and mary makes her way to new york to finally meet the man who is her only true friend, arriving to find that he has just passed away, the last thing he saw being twenty years worth of her letters that he has laminated and covered his ceiling with. this thing is beautiful. each person, place and thing in it is so wonderfully sweet and odd. not odd in the sense of weird, but odd in the sense that every single person on this earth is unique and has something of their own to offer. odd in the way that every one of us is a little odd. i can't tell you how much i enjoyed this. i am watching it again before i go on to the next one, which is unprecedented in the mad dash that queue de grâce often is. the animation is stellar, the characterizations, while occasionally exaggerated for comic effect, are never less than honest, peculiar, funny and warm. one of the best things art can do for us is make us feel glad to be alive and part of this crazy mess, that there are infinite questions to be asked and every answer is worth the struggle. that is how this movie makes me feel. if you've ever felt on the outside of things, open yourself up a nice tall can of condensed milk and give yourself to this for an hour and a half. you won't regret it.

and i'll need that extra boost of happiness because it looks like tomorrow i have a date with one of my least favorite actors on the planet.

what? was andrew mccarthy booked this week?


  1. oh gosh i was so hoping that you had never seen mary and max and that you would love it as much as i did. i am pleased as punch!!

    i saw ponette in the theater with my parents and cried my eyes out the whole time -- i've watched it half a dozen times since and it never fails to make me cry. SUCH an amazing performance, i agree. i think adult actors when they have to deal with big emotions are always thinking about whether they'll impress, whereas victoire is just told "be sad" and so she is sad. or something. it's like it's method but with no pretension.

    i had a notion that a little princess would be your least favorite this day but but but but... it's so... PRETTY.

    i'm so happy you're doing this. love.

  2. mary and max will be one of the things i always recommend to people from now on. ponette's eyes brimming with tears are difficult enough to take when they're life-sized. on a big screen that would be overwhelming.