A charming little film by Sciamma, who gives us two child performances to savour in this subtle, magical realist take on the inseparable bonds between mothers and daughters.
Cast: Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stephane Varupenne
Plot: Nelly has just lost her grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods. One day she meets a girl her same age building a treehouse.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
International Sales: MK2 (SG: Anticipate Pictures)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mothers and Daughters; Grief and Loss; Childhood
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Fresh from the high of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), one of the finest films of its decade, Celine Sciamma’s fifth feature is a charming little piece featuring predominantly two child actresses, who are real-life twins.
Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz play Nelly and Marion respectively; they have a chance encounter in the beautiful woods where Marion is trying to build a hut, a few days before she is due for a major surgery.
Nelly is staying nearby helping her Dad to clear out her Mom’s childhood home. Nelly’s grandmother has recently passed on, and her mother, possibly out of grief, has inexplicably disappeared.
Being mostly alone, Nelly strikes up a temporary friendship with Marion. The term ‘temporary’ here is key, suggesting not just the ephemeral nature of their connection, but also alluding to the idea of the ‘temporal’.
“Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to.”
Sciamma has imbued a magical realist tone in Petite Maman so subtle that it feels like there is no difference between ‘magic’ and ‘reality’, playing with the mystery of time through the conflation of memory and imagination.
The performances by the Sanz sisters are to be savoured, giving us the belief in a less gloomy future, that hope and assurance are just round the bend.
At just 70-odd minutes long, Petite Maman may seem slight, and indeed, plot-wise there isn’t a lot to chew on. Plus, its mise-en-scene is quite spare and minimalist, but its themes do cut deep if you allow them to, be it the exploration of childlike wonder or the inseparable bonds between mothers and daughters.
In a sense, the title (itself suggestive of Sciamma’s deceptive narrative construct) is revealing of the maturity of the child’s perspective—that they can see and comprehend things adults have forgotten about. This is why we must protect children at all costs.