The French maestro on how she’s matured as a filmmaker, and the secrets hidden in her beguiling latest, Petite Maman.
Following her international hit film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns to her roots with her fifth feature, Petite Maman. Starring twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz as daughter and mother Nelly and Marion, the film presents the time-loop premise with naturalism and authenticity. It’s also a return to some of Sciamma’s regular themes: coming-of-age, grief and goodbyes, but also crucially the power of empathy across generations of women.
LWLies: Petite Maman opens with Nelly’s perspective and we follow her closely. What was it like for you to return to a child’s focus? Why does that worldview appeal to you?
Sciamma: I used to answer this question about films with kids very differently because I was younger. I was doing coming-of-age stories because I was coming of age. When I started writing Petite Maman I realised that kids are great characters, and it’s their perspective that I find attractive – the way they see the world. I wanted to give them full credit as individuals and to treat them exactly the same as adults. I think they work so well for cinema because they care a lot. Questions from a child can always be so much more troubling and there’s such a strong pressure because it’s the greatest desire to know, understand, and feel. Looking at something is so important and the desire to understand someone is so important.
There’s something refreshing about how Nelly and Marion respond to the surreal situation. Is their open-mindedness something you hope to inspire in the audience?
Yes, I want the film to be about the audience’s emotions and not the characters’ emotions. I want people to leave the room loving the film, obviously, but also loving cinema. To give that feeling it has to be a dialogue that’s comforting and also troubling. That’s when you love cinema, with everything in it from the costumes to the music is a small revolution. That makes you fall in love again with the medium. We have this cultural background that insists on rituals, especially with cinema, so when you give young audiences more attention you leave more in and you’re given poetry, the poetry of kids. That’s why I keep referring to Hayao Miyazaki with this film because he’s making international films, no one is questioning the different layers. There’s a lot of invention and I think that’s because he is thinking about kids also.
Petite Maman reminds me most of My Neighbour Totoro and you’ve written for animation with My Life as a Courgette. Is that a form of cinema you want to revisit?
I thought about animation for Petite Maman while I was promoting My Life as a Courgette and feeling a lot of gratitude towards that film for how it made me grow as a screenwriter. I thought Petite Maman would be a perfect animated film because people would take their kids. But then there’s the time scale of making an animated film which isn’t what I’m used to, and it’s not even a craft I can pretend to have. I would love for someone to make this film into an anime. I’m not really doing screenwriting for other people anymore but it’s something I would love to do again if it was animation.
What were Josephine and Gabriele Sanz like to work with? Did they bring a lot of improvisation, because their performances feel very authentic?
No, there was no improv at all. Except for the pancake scene, but even then there’s a recipe! For me the thing I ask is, ‘Do they get the idea or do they not?’ If they don’t get the idea then it means that it’s out. They’re defending ideas and their characters and we need to respect that in working with them. We didn’t rehearse at all. Most of our discussions before shooting was around the costumes because I do the costume myself on my films, except for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, of course. I do it because it’s the first part in the artistic direction of the whole film when we’re talking about colours and lights. But it’s also to build relationships around the characters. With the girls they learned the job on the set which is basically learning how to walk again. There’s a lot of live interaction which creates authenticity so it’s based on an idea that we share.
“When I think about childhood, I think about autumn. Autumn feels like home. It’s a very unstable, beautiful moment to watch in nature.”
The costumes feel timeless and it’s interesting that you used an original piece for the ‘music of the future’ at the end. Did you not want to tie the film to any specific time?
I wanted the film to be timeless. It’s time travelling without a machine so it’s very natural. The most difficult idea was the fact that there are two houses and one should be older, but we kept it exactly the same. We didn’t age the wallpaper or anything like that. It’s a time travelling film where the time you travel to is the time you can be together so it’s an opportunity to share the time.
I wanted the film to be something that everybody could connect to in terms of genealogy, and so I tried to make it reliable so that somebody born in the ’50s could totally get it. Marion’s sneakers are ones that were around in 1955, which is when my mother was born. So someone who was a child in the ’60s and someone in 2021 can connect to the story. It means that there are 40-year-old women, grown-ups, going to the film, then going with their mother, being the kid and then going with their own daughter. That’s the utopia of the film, I guess.
The use of objects in the film is part of that change of time, literalising memory as tactile souvenirs. Are there objects which evoke powerful memories for you?
Well, a lot of them are in the film. The grandmother’s cane is actually my real grandmother’s, and some of her outfits are actually worn by the character in the film. It was the first time that I was working around a ghost; bringing back someone is one of the attractions of cinema. I had never tried that before and it’s incredibly powerful. The first shot I did of the grandmother, that was the real corridor at my grandmother’s place. Suddenly you say ‘action’ and you hear this noise in this corridor and she appears and it’s incredible. It changes the love that is inside an image, and this can be felt.
When I was writing the film, I was obsessed with the idea that we would feel our body differently and logic doesn’t exist anymore. I kept thinking about a mother and a kid going to see the film and then they go outside and when they run to get the bus, they will run differently together. That’s why I did the film and why I wanted the film to be short because I felt that it was a kind of spell. You could take the ride several times and you could go back to it. It’s not how long the film lasts, it’s how long the impact of the film lasts. For me, watching the film includes the night after. It’s a project of impact and how it affects your dreams.
It’s interesting that you used Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ so evocatively in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Petite Maman has such luscious autumnal imagery. What do those seasons evoke for you?
When I think about childhood, I think about autumn. Autumn feels like home. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was intended to be about autumn but it became kind of a summer film, because all the exteriors were so sunny and we had to stick to the natural lighting. So I still wanted my autumn film and this time it was a forest. But still, we had to bring thousands and thousands of autumn leaves from elsewhere. There’s also a morbid side to this colour because something’s fading already. It’s a very unstable, beautiful moment to watch in nature.
Goodbyes are the emotional crux of this film and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Is that personal or something you feel lends itself to the transient nature of cinema? Of not wanting things to end?
I keep going back to it, I guess I have to look this in the eye! For me it’s really about the moment, it’s not about the ending. It’s little things because goodbyes are due. Nobody ever dies in my films, there’s a ‘life goes on’ spirit. My films are about trying to console people. I’m always looking at moments which are very much contained in time, there’s always a form of coming together and then we look at very small moments.
I loved the imagery of the black panther at the end of the bed; this symbol of grief. Where did that image come from and what does it mean to you?
We shot this panther on the last day, it was the last shot of the film. It was the hardest thing to do because during the shoot the prop lady would bring me different materials for the shadows. It was very primitive cinema. There’s no CGI; it was done in the moment. So there was this small kid’s room filled with fake leaves held up with fishing line and they would all dance so that the shadows would be intriguing. It was a 12-person moment. It takes a lot of people to create a monster for real.
It’s a personal image, but I think the fact that it’s personal also makes it common. It’s about not telling kids that monsters are only in your head, that monsters sometimes are real. And they’re human. I tried to keep it as open as possible so that everyone can connect. No one else has asked me about this, I’m avoiding the real question… Sometimes the questions that nobody asks you are the most troubling. When you don’t want to talk about a scene that’s normally because there’s a secret behind it that you want to keep. It’s a secret of cinema.
Published 18 Nov 2021
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