"you have to walk along these stones without falling into the lava," says a playmate to the 4-year-old heroine of Jacques Doillon's new film "Ponette." Playing Ponette, Victoire Thivisol strains her little legs to make it from stone to stone without touching the dirt around them. "You know what lava is?" the other girl asks. "It's the devil. If you fall into it, you burn and die." When Ponette reaches the last stone, she looks weary and scared, as if she truly believes that the French schoolyard dirt is a scalding, deadly mass of molten rock.
"Ponette" depicts a time in life when imagination and reality bleed into each other, when someone can point at a tree and transform it into a castle, or convince us that Santa slid down the chimney during the night, or that a monster lives in the hall closet. Thivisol plays let's pretend so well that she won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in "Ponette," the story of a little girl coming to terms with her mother's death. The award announcement was met by a chorus of boos from festival-goers; to win, Thivisol beat out the adult actresses in the other 17 competition films, artists of international stature, many of whom have trained in their profession for years. No 4-year-old will ever win the Nobel Prize in physics or peacemaking or literature, of course -- the suggestion is absurd, but acting, it seems, is a special case. When a very young child actor delivers a performance as convincing as Thivisol's (and she is utterly, transparently convincing), it begs a question: Is acting an instinct or a craft, deliberate or unconscious, child's play or the product of hard work?
That question is only about 100 years old, as young as the movies themselves. Stage acting requires the ability to memorize lines and the concentration and stamina to sustain a performance over the course of an evening, night after night, for weeks. It's strictly for seasoned professionals. Until recently, in Shakespearean companies, even teenagers were written off as lightweights; most actresses weren't considered ready to play the 13-year-old Juliet until they'd kissed their 30th birthday goodbye.
Movie performances, on the other hand, are patched together from small pieces of film, moments that can be shot over and over again (budget permitting) until they're just right. The editor then splices together all the best pieces to create a scene that could never be mastered in real time. "Kids' attention span is not as great," says Hollywood acting coach Bob Dickman. "With movies you can break it down into bits, so you don't exhaust them." Film technology made significant performances by actors under 10 possible. Then, when Charlie Chaplin cast 7-year-old Jackie Coogan as his sidekick in the 1921 silent feature "The Kid," audiences went nuts over the adorable urchin and Coogan became an instant star.
Celebrity ruined Coogan's childhood, of course, a pattern repeating itself to this day in the career of Macaulay Culkin. The life of an actor is generally thought to be incompatible with a happy youth, and common wisdom says that behind every child star lurk fanatically ambitious stage parents who warp the personality of their vulnerable offspring beyond repair. We shudder on learning that Gertrude Temple, mother of Shirley, used to stand behind camera and call out "Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!" whenever her little daughter's energy flagged.
But the truth is that further back, just behind those stage parents, waits a multitude of filmgoers who tsk-tsk over the child star's sorry fate while they fork over another $7 apiece to see the kid perform. The relationship between audiences and child performers has always been a queasy one -- longing, adulation and exploitation all wrapped into one powder-pink package. For we believe that the very qualities we idealize in children -- their freshness, spontaneity and innocence -- are ruined once they're offered up on cue to a camera. We want to see Shirley sparkle, all right -- we just hate knowing that she's doing it on command.
Film performances by children are often, paradoxically, even more "fake" than those of adults. Remember the scene in 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where little Cary Guffey walks into his mother's kitchen and discovers extraterrestrials (unseen by the audience) raiding the fridge? The lovely transit of emotions across his face -- first anxiety, then perplexity, then delighted wonder -- seems authentic, and in a way it is, but director Steven Spielberg achieved it by dressing Guffey's make-up man as a gorilla and himself as the Easter Bunny, and then carefully orchestrating Guffey's exposure to both. The audience thrills to see the little boy making awesome and rapturous contact with another world, but Guffey's reality was closer to a mundane episode of "Captain Kangaroo."
We expect children to be perfectly genuine, but acting itself is frankly phony. What could be more disingenuous than pretending to be someone you're not, feeling emotions that aren't yours? Great acting is a kind of sincere lying, but the sentimentality of adults usually bars child actors from taking the art to its paradoxical limits. Grown-ups project so many Golden Age fantasies onto childhood that we usually don't have the stomach for children as they really are. Most of the time, what adults prefer to see in on-screen children is simply cuteness -- and, indeed, the power of cuteness should never be underestimated. The large eyes, rounded forehead and pixie nose common to almost all animal infants -- from babies to kittens to seagull chicks to lizards -- summon a hard-wired affectionate and protective response in adults. And just as the movies have capitalized on our hankering to look at sexy adults, they happily profit from our weakness for cute kids.
Yet, cuteness, like sexiness, is often the product of calculated manipulation. Just as Marilyn Monroe meticulously designed her persona of a child-woman sweetly oblivious to her own allure, nothing could be more artificial than Shirley Temple's eternally sunny tyke. One actress manufactured a 1950s fantasy of the perfect bedmate, the other gave the 1930s its ideal child.
Temple makes us squirm now, she comes across as so saccharine and false. But how guileless is any child actor, or, for that matter, any child? Paul Peterson, who played Jeff on TV's "The Donna Reed Show" and now runs A Minor Consideration, a support group for current and former child actors, divides kid performers into two groups: the "professionals" and the "naturals." The naturals, he says, remain "blissfully unaware either of where they are or how they got there." The professionals, on the other hand "are unusually gifted, often in many ways ... and almost always come from high-stress households where they have learned to 'perform' in order to avoid troubles, either from dysfunctional parents, difficult siblings, poverty or invasive substance abuse. That's how you build a kid with preternatural emotional skills. It's either please the rubes or perish."
A grim picture, yet does it differ from ordinary childhood in anything more than degree? Children, like most people without real power over their own lives, survive by figuring out how to influence the people who run things. Child psychologists have discovered that kids figure out how to lie almost as soon as they can talk, and they create a pleasing image in the eyes of adults. For child actors, the hardest scenes involve rage and fear, emotions adults don't like to see children express. Renee Harmon, a filmmaker and author of the book "Teaching a Young Actor" (Walker and Company, New York), notes that "the projection of negative emotions is especially difficult for young children, since they might remember reprimands they had been subjected to after throwing a tantrum." Temple, the ultimate adult's child, was never more unconvincing than when she tried to convey grief. Told of her mother's death in the middle of "Bright Eyes," she crinkles up her dimpled face for the most perfunctory boo-hoos imaginable. I've seen kids cry harder over a canceled trip to the zoo.
"Ponette" breaks new ground not in its chosen subject -- Temple lost a veritable battalion of screen parents in the course of her career -- but in the respect with which Doillon approaches Ponette's grief. He constructed his screenplay after the fashion of British director Mike Leigh, by conducting six months of "workshops" with his child actors, working up a script based on interviews and skits designed to draw out their opinions on death and other topics. The scenes in which Ponette's cousins and classmates offer her their theories ("They'll lock her in with screws, and if they bury her right, she can't come back. Only zombies can") and their suggestions (the lava game is a "trial" that Ponette's friend insists will make her a "child of God" who can then communicate directly with her dead mother) seem entirely spontaneous, even though they were, in fact, scripted and memorized, with some scenes reshot 15 or 20 times.
Ponette's peers alternately comfort and torment her ("When somebody's mom dies it's because her kids were mean"), and she experiments with prayer, magic words, an offering of gifts in the wilderness and the above-mentioned "trials." Her shifting, surreal world view, her quicksilver emotional transitions, her stubborn rage and frankness ("It's not nice to lie to me," she scolds an adult who tries to tell her about heaven) struck me as very true to a 4-year-old's heart and mind, but how well can any adult claim to remember those years? Can any of us grown-ups ever really free ourselves from our fantasies about what it's like to be a child?
Finally, what makes "Ponette" most persuasive isn't how much like a child Ponette is, but how much like an adult. The rituals, supplications and strategies she resorts to are embryonic versions of some of civilization's most hallowed traditions, a universal human response to the merciless blankness of loss. It remains hard to tell how much of the film's power derives from Thivisol's award-winning acting and how much from Doillon's exquisitely sensitive direction. Does he create her performance, or just allow it to happen? It may simply be that he is that rarest of grown-ups, one not seeking confirmation that childhood is a more magical or more agonizing, or in any way a radically different period of life from adulthood. Because each of us is as helpless (and as resourceful) as a child when confronted with death, Doillon recognizes Ponette as an equal, and Thivisol rises up to meet him on those terms.