In 2012, Claire Doyon, a French filmmaker, created a 50-minute documentary called Pénélope. The film follows her journey with her autistic daughter to Mongolia to meet a shaman. As a parent of children with autism, I made it a priority to watch as many films as possible about the condition. However, it seems that this particular film is not accessible in the UK or US.
It is possible that Doyon’s emotions towards the film, her daughter, and her efforts to manage Pénélope’s condition have shifted over time, as evidenced by its elusive nature. Additionally, she has created a new film titled Penelope My Love, incorporating footage from her previous work, giving the impression of a reworking rather than a simple revisit.
Rather than focusing solely on Pénélope’s journey abroad, this piece delves into the entirety of her life, starting from her earliest moments until the moment when Claire reveals that they have found a new home for Pénélope. This is not your typical biographical documentary, but rather an essay from Claire’s perspective about the complex and rewarding role of being a parent to Pénélope, who has also been diagnosed with Rett syndrome.
Claire is open and reflective as she shares the various approaches she and her partner, Nicolas Maureau, have tried in hopes of helping their daughter Pénélope, who has autism. These include controversial methods like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as well as a questionable treatment aimed at stimulating the growth of myelin, the substance that covers nerves. As any parent of an autistic child knows, it is impossible to determine if these interventions are truly effective, as no two children have the exact same challenges. Despite this, Pénélope grows up to be a charming young woman, though she still struggles with issues such as communication difficulties, physical challenges, and emotional breakdowns.
Claire’s viewpoint shifts as she gradually learns to accept Pénélope for who she is, while also acknowledging the constant parental desire for improvement. Personally, I found this very relatable, despite the fact that Claire does not attempt to generalize her own family’s experience. She continuously questions her decisions, including whether or not to film Pénélope, what to include, and what to exclude.
The strong bond between Claire and Pénélope, which greatly impacts Claire’s life, is called into question by the end of the film. The ending is abrupt and leaves room for a future feature exploring how Claire, Pénélope, and their family will navigate Pénélope’s new phase of living independently from them.