Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman departs from the filmmaker’s last two feature-length directorial efforts in its comparative modesty. With none of the overt social messaging of Girlhood or the grand romance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s precisely composed images and muted dialogue serve a more intimate story about the longing to connect with one’s mother outside the bounds of the parent-offspring relationship.
Petite Maman indulges the same kind of fantasy as Back to the Future, answering the question of what it would be like to meet our parents at our own age—though it’s not overly concerned with temporal paradoxes or a high-stakes race to ensure one’s genesis. Rather, Sciamma’s film is contemplative and cool almost to a fault, emphasizing the simple acts of connecting with and parting from people we care about, and the rueful inevitability of time’s passing.
The film’s defiance of the linear temporal continuum facilitates a connection between two lonely eight-year-olds, each an only child living with a single parent in an isolated home in the woods. The main character, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), is helping her father (Stéphane Varupenne) clean out her maternal grandmother’s home after the woman’s passing. Meanwhile, her grieving mother (Nina Meurisse) has absconded; Nelly woke up one morning, after they’d snuggled up to each other on the couch in the stripped-bare living room, to find her gone.
The same day, playing in the woods behind her departed grandmother’s house, Nelly encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age who uncannily resembles her (the actresses are sisters). The girl also shares a first name with her mother, and happens to be building a makeshift hut out of branches around the same place that Nelly’s mother did when she was young.
The film evinces Sciamma’s knack for visual economy, communicating much with silent looks and structured absences. The opening shot follows Nelly in a nursing home as she bids au revoir to elderly women. It’s when she comes to a fourth room, which contains an empty bed, that we understand what she’s doing here, and why she’s making sure to say goodbye to each resident.
Throughout Petite Maman, Sciamma uses ambivalent visions to raise silent questions that will hopefully be resolved. As in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the journey to the past—in the earlier film, in the more conventional form of a flashback—seems to be activated by an unexpectedly uncovered sight. In Petite Maman, the tacky lime-green wallpaper revealed behind the refrigerator in Nelly’s grandmother’s kitchen not only symbolizes the partial obscurity of the past, but also, more nebulously, her journey into her absent mother’s history.
When the two girls get caught in the rain, Marion leads Nelly back to her house, which turns out to be the exact same one that she’s staying in with her father—except that her father is gone and it’s a younger version of her grandmother (Margot Abascal) who’s quietly managing things. For obvious reasons, Nelly keeps the secret that she’s actually Marion’s future daughter close to the vest, and she and her child-mother become fast friends with the typical alacrity of prepubescent children. Soon, Nelly and Marion stage a play for an audience of none, each of them playing multiple roles, taking on the tasks of the siblings neither of them have.
But all their fun plays out in the loneliest of spaces, as both the house that’s been emptied in the wake of the grandmother’s death and the one that Marion lives in exude an almost unreal stillness that colors the girls’ interactions. The lack of a score—there’s no music until a sudden needle-drop that kicks off a sequence that serves as an evocatively indirect culmination of the story—and the hushed atmosphere means that we hear every rustle of clothing as the girls play and talk, emphasizing their mutual isolation even as they grow closer together.
The formal expressivity of this film stands in a certain contrast to its characters, whose outward emotions are pointedly deadened. In Marion’s case, particularly as an adult, this reads as the numbness of grief and depression. But the children’s matter-of-fact demeanor and condensed manner of speech, while endearing at first, can sometimes seem over-calibrated (“You didn’t invent my sadness,” Marion poetically says to Nelly at a crucial point, trying to comfort her).
Whittling down the dialogue and conveying emotion largely through formal technique, Sciamma takes perhaps too much of the burden off of her child-actors’ shoulders. The more difficult-to-process emotions remain suspended in the air, manifest in the images, like the panther that Marion imagines she sees in the shadows cast on her bedroom wall.
The youthful inquisitiveness and mature sobriety that defines Nelly positions her as a version of a child that an adult might imagine themselves to have been. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t incredible power to the way that Sciamma has her audience view the world of childhood from a grown-up remove. Petite Maman’s look at an impossible connection between a young girl, her mother, and her grandmother captures with wistful clarity the asynchrony that keeps us from getting to fully know our parents as people—fantasizing a scenario in which its main character can achieve an understanding that for many of us comes too late.
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