Petite Maman (2021)

Céline Sciamma | 1hr 12min

In the wake of her grandmother’s passing, 8-year-old Nelly goes with her parents to her mother’s childhood home to clear it out. Then one night, without explanation, her mother picks up and leaves. It is probable that she just found the process too overwhelming, but through the eyes of her daughter the departure feels deliberately cold. Out in the woods though, there is another 8-year-old girl, Marion. It is no coincidence that she has the same name as Nelly’s mother, nor that she shares the same birthday, or lives in an identical albeit much younger house. Petite Maman follows up Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an equally delicate though relatively more fantastical study of young women in the process of self-discovery, thriving in natural environments cut off from the structures of society, where genuine love can strengthen its roots and flourish.

Sciamma does not rely on a great deal of exposition to set the scene. The very first shot of the film tells us everything we need to know, as Nelly finishes up a crossword puzzle with an old woman in a nursing home before ducking in and out of other rooms, farewelling her other elderly friends, and then leaving with her mother. Evidently, she has been there a lot recently, and given the thoroughness of her goodbyes, she won’t be coming back. Sciamma is succinct and to the point in her camerawork, weaving through the building in one long, unbroken take and letting Nelly’s quiet grief gradually sink in.

In encountering a younger version of her mother, Nelly is doubly gifted with the opportunity to see her grandmother one last time, understanding her life from a viewpoint beyond her own. Petite Maman is very much a wish fulfillment in that aspect, giving this young girl the time and space to appreciate her elders whose lives once looked much closer to hers than they do in the present. Likewise, the younger Marion finds fresh perspective in seeing a glimpse of her future. Twenty-three years might seem like a long time away to reckon with her mother’s death, but for Nelly, it is far too soon.

Together, the two girls go about playing make believe, rowing, cooking pancakes, eating cake, and building a makeshift hut out in the woods. In that dainty structure of sticks and autumn leaves, there stands a gorgeous monument to their fleeting friendship, offering a safe place tucked away from the eyes of prying adults where they can revel in childhood together.

Although in the present-day the older Marion recalls building that hut, she never mentions doing it with another girl, and thus the door is left open for some ambiguity. Everything in Petite Maman feels like a tangible reality, but Sciamma does offer small hints in her continuity editing that this may simply be a fantasy in Nelly’s mind. One specific transition takes us from the past house to the current house without us even realising it, blurring the boundaries of where they start and stop, and Sciamma also often cuts from scenes of the two girls sitting together to shots of Nelly on her own.

These two worlds are blended right down to the casting of the two young actresses, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, a pair of twins who might almost be indistinguishable were it not for their colour-coded red and blue costumes. Sciamma effectively taps into the natural rapport between them in their scenes together, drawing out natural laughter as they play and, in more subdued scenes, giving them the space to talk sweetly and deeply.

“Did I want you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m already thinking about you.”

Much like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is almost entirely free from music until the end, where a pivotal piece underscores significant action. Sciamma enlists the talents of French electronic music producer Para One here to compose an innocent love song for two young friends spending their last morning together before they must both leave, its synths perpetually pounding with both restless excitement and a desire to live in the moment.

Of course though, this isn’t the last time the girls will see each other. Where for Marion it will be 23 years until she meets her childhood friend again, Nelly needs only head back home to see hers. Sciamma chooses wisely not to elucidate how real all of this is, but in the final scene between mother and daughter there does appear to be an acknowledged shift in their dynamic. For a moment, the older Marion is no longer “Mum”, and she reciprocates the authentic openness that Nelly puts forward. There is value in this parent-child relationship, but Sciamma recognises it does not need to be restricted to those roles either. For now, amid all the grief, there are simply two friends sharing each other’s love and pain.

Petite Maman is currently playing in theatres.

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