An eight-year-old girl encounters a young version of her mother in Céline Sciamma’s transportive fable.
If you could travel back in time and meet your mother as a child, what would you say to her? That’s the fantastical, slightly eerie premise of Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her rapturously received 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. On the surface of it, Petite Maman is a comparatively low-stakes affair, but it is captivating and deeply affecting nonetheless – a microscale marvel from a filmmaker at the top of their game.
The film centres on eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose grandmother has just passed away. After leaving the nursing home, she accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the former’s childhood home in the countryside, where they spend the next few days sorting through the memories and belongings left behind. Early on, Nelly expresses regret over the way she said goodbye to her grandmother. Had she known it would be the last time they would see each other, she says, she would have acted differently. She may yet get a second chance.
When her mother leaves without notice, Nelly ventures into the nearby woods where she encounters a familiar looking girl who’s busy building a den around the base of a tree. The similarity between them is immediately striking – indeed, not only are they the same age but Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) has the same name as Nelly’s mother, and lives in a house at the other end of the woods that is identical to her grandmother’s, right down to the secret cupboard in the hallway.
With the adult performers very much on the periphery throughout, it’s left to the Sanz twins to carry the emotional weight of the story. To that end, the sisters are a revelation, displaying a level of skill and maturity that at once belies their tender age and newcomer status. The scenes they share are a complete joy to behold, in particular a recurring sequence in which they roleplay a procedural drama they devise together about a countess murdered for her stake in the Coca-Cola fortune.
Though filmed towards the end of last year following the lifting of France’s lockdown restrictions, Petite Maman was written while Sciamma was still doing the press rounds for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. So if the end product looks on paper to be ready-made for pandemic times – something short and sweet, shot on a modest budget with a small cast and crew, and dealing with the death of a family member – in actuality it feels like it could have been made at any point (although certainly not by any director).
There’s a timelessness to this charming fable, with Sciamma conjuring classic fairy tale imagery in the form of the enchanted woodland setting, little Marion’s crimson red fleece, and the suggested presence of a shadowy beast lurking in grandma’s house. Yet despite its semi-ambiguous, dreamlike narrative and hints of magical realism, Petite Maman never once undermines Nelly’s perspective by inferring that her young imagination might have simply run wild. In this regard, Sciamma’s film plays like live-action Studio Ghibli; When Marnie Was There made flesh.
This is a time travel movie, but not like any you’ve seen before, in that it’s less about the journey and the mechanics of bridging two distinct points in time and more about the experience of sharing a fleeting moment with someone you are intrinsically and inextricably connected to. It’s an understated yet transportive film that beautifully articulates the way children perceive and process loss and grief.
Published 3 Mar 2021
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