An adult tries to comfort the four-year-old girl whose grief and confusion at her mother’s sudden death provides Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996) with its narrative and emotional contours. She tells Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) not to be sad: that, like Jesus, she should be filled with joy most of the time. But Ponette is adamant: “It’s not joyful being a child.” This is a sentiment also articulated in Doillon’s earlier film, Le jeune Werther (Young Werther, 1993), during a conversation between friends Ismael (Ismaël Jolé-Ménébhi) and Theo (Thomas Brémond), even before they have to grapple with the suicide of a school friend, Guillaume. Discussing the various complexities of their young adolescent lives, Theo decides, “Still, it sucks being a kid.”
The world of childhood that emerges in Doillon’s films is a deeply unsentimental one. Born in Paris in 1944, Doillon is one of the lesser known of the generation of French filmmakers to emerge after the nouvelle vague, despite making over 30 feature films since 1973. Like those of his contemporary, Philippe Garrel (born in 1948), Doillon’s films are interested in human relationships. Throughout his career Doillon has explored the complexities of love and intimate relationships, especially those within tense family dynamics. Doillon’s first two feature films – L’an 01 (The Year 01, 1973) and Les doigts dans la tête (Touched in the Head, 1974) – are also concerned with challenges and alienations specific to childhood and adolescence, which have become a major theme of his work.
Where Hollywood representations of childhood broadly offer sugary images of nostalgic innocence on the one hand or nightmarish visions on the other, Doillon sees being a child in a more complex way. Doillon’s vision of childhood is a singular one – neither romanticised, nor entirely brutal. Like François Truffaut, Doillon views childhood through a humanistic and restrained lens. Not only does he share Truffaut’s affection for the children in his films, but he also never condescends to them, imagining childhood as a time of exploration and discovery informed by a struggle between freedom and restraint. But Doillon’s films are similar also to the work of Maurice Pialat. Like Pialat’s films about young people, including L’enfance nue (1968) and À nos amours (1983), Doillon also sees childhood as a difficult, despairing time. Like Pialat, he is unafraid to place his characters in dark territory that causes psychic anguish and lasting bruises.
In Doillon’s vision of childhood – in Young Werther and Ponette, as well as Un sac de billes (A Bag of Marbles, 1975), La drôlesse (1979) and La vie de famille (Family Life, 1985) – there is joy, but there is also unhappiness and cruelty. He implicitly understands that the experience of being a child is never only one thing, and it is rarely uncomplicated. Doillon’s children lead heightened emotional lives; they are often wise beyond their years, and are frequently in conflict with the cruelties of the adult world. Each of Doillon’s cinematic children has a rich inner life; they are not free of anxieties or existential questions. With an intricate way of relating to the world around them, they are able to re-imagine the limitations of their world, transforming it into something better and new.
Doillon constructs this world with an immersive but naturalistic filmmaking style. His camera stays close to his young subjects, but never looks down at them; by sitting at their level, it situates the eye of the audience directly inside their world. Doillon frames shots tightly, to create both an intimate and oppressive space. His films frequently employ abrupt edits from one scene to the next to communicate the episodic way children experience the world. As a result, children are the key point of identification within the narrative of these films; we see what they see and we feel what they do. In addition, the director’s great facility with child actors cannot go unobserved – the performances he prompts from the young actors in all these films are nothing less than remarkable, and are frequently extraordinary.
The seriousness of youth
A Bag of Marbles is the first of Doillon’s films to focus almost exclusively on the world of children. The tyranny of the Occupation of France during World War II is the backdrop against which two Jewish brothers – ten-year-old Joseph (Richard Constantini) and twelve-year-old Maurice (Paul-Eric Shulmann) – come of age. “You have to know how to get by in life,” Maurice tells Joseph as he tries cooking a half-plucked chicken that he stole and killed. Set in 1941 as the Nazis march into Paris, A Bag of Marbles follows the Jewish brothers as they make their way south, alone and increasingly vulnerable, into Vichy France.
An adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s 1973 autobiographical novel of the same name, A Bag of Marbles privileges Joseph’s experience of events. Doillon employs an intermittent voiceover that focuses on what the younger boy sees and how he reacts. Like many of Doillon’s children, Joseph has to grow up quickly due to circumstances beyond his control. Until the Nazis become a visible presence in his life, Joseph is able to insulate himself from the darker reality unfolding around him. His trials have a taste of adventure. There is a reckoning for him, not only with the forces of history, but also with the very nature of who he is, that takes place far away from the comfort and security of family life.
A Bag of Marbles is unique among Doillon’s films about childhood for the extenuating historical context that shapes this childhood trauma. But Doillon never trivialises or minimises the experiences of the young protagonists in any of his films, whether they are grappling with war, death, love, loneliness or conflict with friends. Like Truffaut, Doillon privileges what is important to children; and, by doing this, he makes them important. For Mado (Madeleine Desdevises) in La drôlesse, Elise (Mara Goyet) in Family Life, Ismael in Young Werther and Ponette, childhood is not a frivolous time, but a serious, solemn one filled with constant turmoil. Each of Doillon’s child characters is forced to confront vexing questions about the world and where they are positioned in it. And most of them have to find the answers to these questions alone.
For Mado, in the austere and strangely beautiful La drôlesse,1 being starved of love leads the pre-teenaged girl to nurture it for herself in the most unlikely of places. Mado lives in less than ideal circumstances with a mother who has no time for her. “I don’t like my mother,” Mado declares, with shameful disappointment, when she’s asked to write a poem for Mother’s Day at school. When Mado is abducted by François (Claude Hébert), a childlike seventeen-year-old who passes a similarly marginalised and lonely existence on a village farm, she is initially perturbed. But, in her captivity, Mado finds a chance to remake her life into a version wherein she is both able to give and receive love. With François, who she recognises as “funny” and “odd” just like her, she creates a new house for “laughing, having fun and forgetting your problems” – a house unlike one either of them has ever lived in before.
Doillon’s children are adept at finding solutions to their problems. In Family Life, ten-year-old Elise finds strength in defiance. Elise sees her father, Emmanuel (Sami Frey), every weekend. He is now married to another woman, Mara (Juliet Berto), and is stepfather to a complicated teenager daughter, Natacha (Juliette Binoche). During the particular weekend that unfolds in Family Life, father and daughter take a road trip around the south of France and into Spain that threatens to dislodge the already shaky foundations of their relationship. Both want to be closer to the other. Both also fear that it is too late.
But Elise isn’t satisfied to just spend time with Emmanuel. She tests him – setting challenges for him, calling him out on his various flirtations, and repeatedly pointing to what she sees as his failings as a father. Their frequent disputes are primal, and often tease at more Oedipal terrain. But despite her petulance, Elise sees things with a clarity that belies her years. Emmanuel’s decision that they spend the weekend making a film from one of Elise’s stories turns into an opportunity for recriminations wherein the camcorder plays an increasingly invasive part in their conversations. What Elise is finally able to reveal is an anxiety that she is actually like her father, and that, “perhaps, that’s why we get along so badly”.
In both Young Werther and Ponette, children must confront the painful complications of grief and the void left behind by death. Both Ismael and Ponette cope by engaging in a ‘fantasy’ life to help make sense of the enormity of their loss. In Young Werther, the suicide of Ismael’s friend, Guillaume, who was kept back a year at school, plunges the young teenager into feelings of guilt and a desperate need to understand why. As he asks Mirabelle (Mirabelle Rousseau), “What didn’t we understand?” Ismael’s need to understand sees him become infatuated with an older girl, Miren (Miren Capello), whom, he learns, Guillaume used to follow around the Latin Quarter. When Miren eventually rejects him, Ismael understands why his friend wanted to die. Ismael’s heightened feelings find voice in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Doillon’s film takes inspiration from and which Ismael is seen reading. A late sequence, in which Ismael visits Guillaume’s grave, cements the magnitude of his sorrow. He feels the same way about Mirin, so he understands what happened. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill myself,” he tells his dead friend, “even though you killed part of my life.”
Ponette seeks answers to where her mother is and why she isn’t coming back after a car accident. Her questioning, restless face is Doillon’s constant focus. Doillon observes how Ponette interacts with adults, how she interacts with other children and how she listens to and observes the world around her. At only four years of age, Ponette is receiving a lot of mixed messages. Her father (Xavier Beauvois) is an atheist, and believes his daughter has lost touch with reality, that she is lying to herself in her refusal to accept that her mother is dead. Left with a religious aunt and young cousins, Delphine (Delphine Schiltz) and Matiaz (Matiaz Bureau Caton), while her father travels to Lyon for work, Ponette is subjected to even further confusion by the different information she receives. Unlike her father, her aunt believes firmly in the resurrection, which leads Ponette to believe that her mother can return like Jesus. Throughout, she believes seriously that her mother will speak to her – to reassure Ponette that she is all right, and to provide her with a path forward of her own.
A space of their own
In privileging children’s subjectivity, Doillon explores an essential disagreement between how children and adults interact with the world, which effectively functions as a critique of the adult world. In these films, adults are frequently absent and often completely invisible. In Young Werther, there is almost no interaction with adult characters. An exception is a scene in which Ismael speaks to the school principal when he delivers the news of the suicide; otherwise, there is a minimal presence from teachers in various classrooms during scenes set inside the school. But Doillon never ventures home with Ismael to explore his relationship with his parents. Young Werther’s action is reduced primarily to what is happening between Ismael and his friends, rendered with such vivid intensity that it becomes, convincingly, an entire microcosm of life itself. At no point do we need to look outside it for further information about him.
In Doillon’s films, children are often left to their own devices. There is a constant push and pull between the adult and child’s world that manifests in a tension between freedom and adventure, comfort and unease. Often, Doillon’s children are caught between these poles. In A Bag of Marbles, Maurice and Joseph’s removal from the adult world is both liberating and perilous. While physical and psychological isolation from their parents certainly provides Joseph and Maurice ample opportunities for growth, their isolation is not always advantageous to them. The brothers display ingenuity in getting by, but we watch them with the hindsight that history affords us. When Maurice is negotiating how he and Joseph will pass into the free zone, he observes, “We haven’t seen many Germans.” It becomes clear that the brothers are often oblivious to their own vulnerability. Doillon lets the brothers revel in their adventures, but his abrupt editing and the speed with which he moves them from one scenario to the next as they make their way south builds an invisible tension, a sense that danger waits around every corner for them and that they are always only narrowly avoiding it.
If Doillon separates Joseph and Maurice from the world of their parents to detail the family’s development, in Family Life he takes the opposite approach. Here, he magnifies the difference between these two worlds by forcing them to coexist. Doillon repeatedly encourages us to see Emmanuel as his daughter Elise sees him. The introduction of the camcorder that Emmanuel will use to make a film of one of Elise’s stories up-ends this vision. As he records her, we are also encouraged to see Elise as her father sees her. The ‘home movie’ fuses two worlds, visualising Elise’s observation that she and her father are more alike than each thinks. Doillon plays further with space in Family Life’s penultimate sequence, set in a Madrid hotel room, in which Elise and Emmanuel are forced to really face each other and their troubles. The camera, positioned in the sitting room, becomes a battleground, with Elise and Emmanuel taking turns approaching it like a confessional before retreating into the bedroom to lick their wounds.
Despite its explosions of emotional truth, there is an oppressive atmosphere to this sequence in Family Life that highlights the claustrophobic dynamic between father and daughter. Emmanuel admits he pushed Elise away in the hope that she would find her way back to him. Doillon skilfully builds the children’s isolation and displacement from the adult world into the physical spaces of his films. Children are often consigned to stifling spaces – their bodily movements limited, even as their imaginations expand. Settings are rarely foregrounded; when watching a Doillon film, it is often difficult to ascertain where in France the action is unfolding. Mise en scène is also stripped down. Doillon’s primary concern is his character’s emotional lives; the physical attributes of the spaces they live in are important only because of what they convey about character psychology.
This tendency is most completely articulated in La drôlesse, in which Mado’s freedom from her miserable home life is expressed within the confined space of François’ bedroom above the farmhouse. When Mado is kidnapped, she effectively lets François take her, and when she has her chance to escape, she runs back to him. She makes the choice to separate from the adult world to make a world of her own. Doillon frames Mado and François up close when they are inside the room, opening the frame up only on the rare occasions when they (usually just François, running errands or buying Mado food) venture outside. The closeness of the space is both unsettling and comforting. Despite the barrenness of the room, it becomes increasingly warm as Mado becomes more comfortable and ‘at home’ in it. As Mado’s attachment to the room changes, so does its meaning.
The way Mado and François treat each other inside the room reverberates through the contrasting images of how they are each treated by adults outside it. Early in La drôlesse, we see Mado waiting in bed in the dark for her mother to return from work. Mado is happy when she arrives. As her mother undresses, she goes to her and helps, gently and affectionately scratching her back. “Leave me alone,” her mother says, completely uninterested in her daughter and unable to share a kind word. Mado’s disappointment is palpable.
Similarly, François’ interactions with the adult world leave him upset and certainly exacerbate his psychological problems. His mother cares little for him and his stepfather is concerned only with Francois’ failure to make money. The only person, apart from Mado, who treats him with any kindness, is the shopkeeper to whom he sells mushrooms. Significantly, she is the first person that we hear call him ‘François’. Lingering close-ups on both Mado and François’ faces allow us to observe just how enormous an effect these acts of rejection and acceptance have on them.
La drôlesse also magnifies how differently children and adults experience events. To adults, what takes place in the small room between François and Mado is strange and sinister, but to these children it is uncomplicated and normal. The film’s conclusion, in which Mado and François recreate her abduction for the police, reinforces this seriousness as well as the absurdity of how the outside world sees them. La drôlesse ends like A Bag of Marbles, with a freeze frame image that delivers a final devastating emotional blow. Here, Mado rests her head on François’ shoulder as he picks her up to run away with her. Leaning gently into him, Mado says, “Let’s pretend I’m dead” – a stark statement that suggests her life with her mother continues to be mortifying.
Adults exist in the background of Ponette’s life too. The youngest of Doillon’s children, we know she is not roaming the world without adult supervision, but their role in her narrative is ultimately a peripheral one. In Ponette, the camera is tethered so intimately to the four-year-old girl that when adults enter the frame, they tend to upset the delicate emotional ecosystem Doillon has established. Adult characters facilitate Ponette’s questions about death, God and the possibility of an afterlife, but, mostly, their ideas and rules confuse her, causing her additional anguish. The adults want to change how she thinks, but, as she says to one of them, “It’s not nice to lie to me.”
By keeping the camera close to Ponette’s face and positioned low, Doillon makes her the point of interest in every scene. His restricted camera does not suggest a narrow view of the world, but rather a very specific and detailed one. Scenes in which Ponette interacts with her cousins and schoolmates are a complete world rendered in miniature. Doillon takes his time, allowing the children’s conversations and reactions to one another to resonate with a natural emotional pacing. There is never a sense that something more important is happening somewhere else.
Some of Ponette’s most moving and authentic scenes are those that unfold between Ponette and her cousin, Matiaz. The boy alternates between delivering his blunt version of the truth and acts of unadulterated kindness towards his cousin. On the day of the funeral, Matiaz comforts Ponette, telling her that her mother will sleep for a very long time because she has a pillow with her. He kisses Ponette and she kisses him back. The children caress each other’s faces. They are childlike in their interactions but never childish. Later, as Ponette continues to wait for her mother’s return to her, Matiaz points out that their dead grandfather never came back. Ponette explains that was “because no one was waiting for him”. Matiaz can’t argue with this and walks away. In Ponette, the children have a way of reasoning based both on logic and feeling. Doillon sees the space between them as a more emotionally truthful one.
Within Doillon’s world of childhood, what adults might call ‘games’ are in fact complex tools used by children to re-imagine and remake their world. In each of these films, children engage in some sort of play or disengagement with reality, for better or worse. In A Bag of Marbles, Joseph and Maurice are asked by their father (non-actor Joseph Goldenberg) to ‘play’ at not being Jewish. As they prepare to leave Paris and head south to Vichy, their father tells them that their survival is dependent on how they will answer the question, “Are you Jewish?” As their father directs his instructions to Maurice, Doillon focuses on Joseph, sitting on his bed on the other side of the room. We see him quietly taking the information in, trying to make sense of it. While their father reinforces that “what counts now is not being a Jew”, we see Joseph and Maurice nervously laughing, a reminder that they are only children after all.
The boys experience a period of relative calm when they stay in Merton with their older brothers, before all move to Nice to meet their parents. Here, Doillon allows them to play at being boys again. As Joseph says, “I was ten years old, and children should not work.” But Doillon moves the action along quickly to communicate just how fast the situation changes during wartime. The fun ends once the Germans arrive in Nice and the possibility of being raided every night reminds them that “This is not a game”. When the Germans capture Joseph and Maurice, Doillon stages a quietly terrifying interrogation. The brothers continue to play at not being Jews – “We are not Jews, we come from Algeria,” they say – then muddle through a story about being in France on holiday and unable to return home. But the Germans don’t believe them, and a doctor’s examination confirms they are circumcised. Maurice tries to talk their way out of this too. “I only have to do the usual comedy,” he tells Joseph, in order to save them being sent to Germany. But Joseph warns, “It won’t work with the Germans. You don’t know them.” The game, for now, is up.
Playing games also becomes a way for Elise to get by in Family Life. When Emmanuel goes to collect Elise from a friend’s house, they have prepared a game for him to play. Emmanuel has to enter Elise’s world on her own terms, down on the floor, crawling through various obstacles. Doillon lowers the camera to capture this view. When they return to Elise’s house, she tells him she wants to play a game, but Emmanuel keeps saying no. Elise persists: “What do you want to do?” she asks. Emmanuel says, “What you want … if I like it.” Games become power plays between father and daughter, intensifying as their weekend veers off course. Emmanuel’s idea to control his own game by making a movie with Elise backfires spectacularly, when she turns the camera back on him, causing him pain. In their hotel room in Madrid, reality supplants fiction. Emmanuel wants to capture “a picture of us that will please both of us”, for the movie to act like “a photo you wouldn’t be ashamed of, for later”. But for Elise, her father’s motives are impure. She resents his bringing her here and the presence of the camera between them. Doillon positions them on the sofa together as Elise castigates her father. He moves from a close-up to a two shot that shows Elise seated on the armrest, elevated and looking down at her father, clearly holding the upper hand.
In Young Werther, Ismael struggles to gain control of his grief, but finds freedom in his imagination. Reading Goethe’s novel, he finds expression for his own sorrows, but he is also deeply affected by its romanticism. “How her figure haunts me! Waking or dreaming, she fills my soul,” he reads, as his attachment to Miren grows. Ismael’s desperately sad declaration at Guillaume’s grave that “she has to change, otherwise you did it for nothing” indicates how severely stuck he is in this obsession with Miren. Ismael has idealised the object of love so much that he has begun to disconnect from reality. Miren plays along, briefly, but is ultimately, rightly, made uncomfortable by Ismael’s fixation. As she explains to him, “It was weird for him to follow me like he did. It’s even weirder if you take his place.” Ismael has become a boy, like Guillaume and Goethe’s Young Werther before him, on whom “Everything weighs heavier … than on normal people.” Young Werther’s final scene, as Ismael continues following Miren around, suggests that the weight has not lifted yet and probably never will.
Like Ismael, Ponette experiences more emotional turmoil than is reasonable for one so young. In her refusal to believe she will never see her mother again, Ponette refuses to accept the limitations of the physical world. She confronts these limitations head on. Her father, who is also grieving in his own way, is upset by what he calls her “games”. He wants Ponette to face reality immediately. As they drive to her cousins’ house, Ponette’s father stops the car at what appears to be the scene of the accident. He’s angry at what he sees as his wife’s carelessness, and wants Ponette to understand that her mother is dead and never coming back. But Ponette’s understanding of death is a less confronting one. “She’s flying with her magic mirror,” she says, suddenly calmer.
Ponette’s games involve her talking to her mother and imagining what she’s doing now. During a conversation with her cousins the camera stays low, effectively in bed with the children, as Ponette recounts, with utmost sincerity, what she and her mother talk about. “I ask where she lives,” she explains, giving recognisable form and shape to something she can’t possibly understand. “She says in the sky there are castles that are all different colours.” The space between Ponette’s interactions with the world and those of the adults widen when Matiaz tells his mother that Ponette won’t play with him because she is waiting for her mother. His mum says, “It’s just a game.” But Matiaz corrects her. “No, she’s really waiting.” Ponette’s games remake her reality. Her desire to touch what is real is magnified in the conversation she has in the film’s moving finale. Finally talking to her mother she wants to know whether their games together are real and, more importantly, “Do you love me for real?”
Games supplant reality for Mado in La drôlesse. While François first appears to have the upper hand when he takes her to his room – concocting an elaborate fiction to stop her from escaping downstairs about how the ‘bosses’ bled the last girl he brought here to death – Mado eventually enjoys being there. As she becomes more comfortable, and François’ threats lessen, she takes control of the situation and plays games with her captor that escalate in emotional intensity as the narrative progresses.
Mado is adamant, “I don’t like being told stories”; so her games are, like Ponette’s, a way to access the truth. She and François play at various familial relationships. In their daily life, Mado gives importance to all the things we assume she has been starved of in her own home – meals at a table, cuddles, kind words, stories and gifts. Each wants to make the other happy. Doillon positions Mado on a chair seated by the door waiting for François to return. Mado demands that he pull at a string to let her know it’s him when he knocks, establishing a secret bond between them that gives her pleasure. When he comes home with chocolate filled with nuts, which Mado doesn’t like, François decides to swap it for a chocolate she will enjoy more, because he wants to see her happy.
As Mado and François get to know each other better their arguments sound increasingly like those of an old, married couple. When François forgets to buy sausages, Mado admonishes him by saying he’d forget his head if it was loose. When Mado insists that François go downstairs and make peace with his mother, he tells her, “You’re a woman for sure. You’re stubborn.” But Mado and François’ games do not take a sexual turn. They are physically affectionate with one another, but there is openness and innocence to this that conveys how hungry each is for the kindness and warmth of human contact. “I like the way we sleep,” François says, as they lie alongside each other and exchange stories of the cruelty their parents have subjected them to. Later, when Mado tells François she wants him to “make” her a baby to relieve her boredom, Doillon stays on his face to register his extreme discomfort. He does not want this. As he tells her, of all the roles they have played together, the one he has liked best is when she calls him “Dad”.
By the end of La drôlesse, a confused and sad François decides, “You’re healed. I’ll return you to your mother.” Mado returns to the adult world, as all Doillon’s children eventually must, reluctantly, but transformed.
- The film’s title is regularly translated as The Hussy, which I think is misleading in its suggestion that Mado is a sexually provocative character. “Une drôlesse” is, in the French dialect particular to the rural area in which the film is set, “a little girl”, although the term is used more generally in French to describe a woman of loose morals. What Mado is is a provocateur, willing to take control of the situation and move it forward. ↩