Director: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Skip over her illustrious last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for just a moment and the cinema of Céline Sciamma has been defined by her keenly attuned sense of the interior lives of children. In Water Lilies this manifested in a tale of burgeoning adolescent sexuality. In Tomboy the pangs of non-binary awakening were lightly pried into. Girlhood advanced years slightly, but is still celebrated as one of the finest coming-of-age movies of a generation. And let’s not forget that she penned the infinitely charming school-age stop-motion feature My Life as a Courgette. Petite Maman, then, is a return to an established pattern of deftly judged inquiry.
Eight year old Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) grandmother has just died in a care home, and a pall of sadness has settled over the family. While boxing up her house, Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) absconds, leaving her daughter near-enough alone (as ever, men are peripheral figures in this Sciamma narrative – though Nelly’s father, Stéphane Varupenne, is a modest delight).
Wandering into the woods that abut the house, Nelly encounters a girl who could be her double, also named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz; Joséphine’s real-life twin). Together they build a hut out of sticks, and Nelly comes to realise that she has travelled through time. This girl is actually her own mother at her age. Over the course of the ensuing days, the two will bond in ways that might otherwise have been unimaginable. Sciamma’s light sci-fi concept is perfectly judged in it’s elusiveness. It doesn’t require the mechanics of an explanation. It is as rational – and possible – as a fantasy world conjured in a child’s mind.
The film is mischievously coy about whether the adults that lurk at the edges of the story are aware of the mini-miracle happening beyond the borders of the garden. Nelly is afforded the opportunity for a different kind of goodbye with her recently departed grandmother (Margot Abascal), while young Marion also gets a brief opportunity to meet and interact with her future husband. Neither of these grownups acknowledge that the girls are identical in appearance, but they do acknowledge their very co-existence, anchoring the events in the ‘real’. We can’t use the easy get-out that Nelly’s imagination is merely running wild. Still, they remain tight-lipped, and it only adds to the film’s sense of magic.
Sciamma is a great study of bodies; a portrait artist herself, one might say. Petite Maman often feels like an observational piece on the ways in which children comport themselves. A shot will document how Nelly throws a ball, or the particular walk that both children seem to share. The inanimate is also given a kind of skewed study. Both Nelly and Marion are enjoyably industrious, displaying a sensibility that is (unironically) older than their years. Sciamma often tasks them activities that involve employing tools. Scissors. Lighters. A hot saucepan. The film witnesses such items being used in the service of play, redefining their purposes from a child’s eye.
But most keenly Petite Maman is a touching paean to the resilience of children. Nelly is discovering and understanding grief for the first time. In tandem, Marion is readying for an operation and so, in her own way, is having her first crisis of mortality. Without fully articulating it as such, they seek solace and strength in one another. Both are astute young girls, and when Nelly confides her suspicions about the truth of their relationship to Marion, they barely skip a beat, utilising their ensuing time to observe one another anew from this fantastical dynamic.
So while the peripheral adults are isolated and de facto unable to communicate with one another (either due to space or time), Nelly and Marion become beacons of connection and interplay. They fare better than most of us. To paraphrase an old adage, the child is mother to the woman, and Sciamma’s film slyly deconstructs our assumptions that adults know best. Indeed, the guilelessness of childhood enables Nelly and Marion to broach topics with one another that adult life codes us to remain closed on. This leads to an olive-branch act of reassurance from Marion to Nelly that brought a tear to the eye of this often stony-hearted viewer.
Due to its young stars and miniature running time (a deceptively light 70-odd minutes), it may be tempting to view Petite Maman as a lesser offering from Sciamma; something dashed off quickly in the wake of her prior film’s prestigious success. A palette cleanser before the next big deal. But this small morsel offers complex and rewarding flavours that linger long after that first greedy gulp. Petite Maman is as rich an offering as this director has yet shared with us and, given her unimpeachable track record thus far, that’s no meagre statement to make. She may be the best out there right now.