Céline Sciamma does a great job in “Petite Maman” of making a movie that is incredibly gentle while still being able to keep the audience engaged. It might come off as a stark contrast from Sciamma’s brutally emotional film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which gave her incredible acclaim and cemented her as a favorite for film lovers worldwide. After a small break between films, “Petite Maman” was filmed during the pandemic and is a staggeringly beautiful 72 minutes. While one of the shortest films in her library of work, an incredible effort is made to fill in every minute of screen time with great detail and attention, making it feel anything but short.
The film starts with Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) visiting a retirement home and saying goodbye to the residents. We learn pretty soon, her grandmother has passed away, and they’re here to go through the leftover belongings in her home to sort out what will be kept or discarded. Now please beware, there is a spoiler that is pretty important to understand for the remainder of the film. So if you prefer to be left unspoiled and find that out for yourself, this is your exit point.
Nelly, her mother (Nina Meurisse), and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) then go through her mother’s childhood home house they’ll live out of for the next few days while sorting through items and cleaning it out. One thing to note is that we’re not given any time for the characters’ grieving in a way that other films might have done. There’s never a moment where the characters break down or outright question anything that happened. They do still grieve, of course, just in their distinct and subtle ways.
While the family is at her mother’s childhood home, she meets another girl about the same age and appearance as her. While not said out loud until about halfway through, it is made clear to the audience that the girl is her mother Marion (portrayed now by Joséphine’s twin sister Gabrielle). It should also be said the already existing sisterhood and chemistry between the two girls help immensely in their relationship in the film. So while this takes from the concept of “What if you got to see your parents when they were your age” from the likes of “Back To the Future” this movie does not devote a single second to any sort of temporal consequences of this situation. There is no time machine, fancy technology, or anything of the sort. For all we know, this is just a fantasy created inside of Nelly’s head to get to know her mother better and to process her grandmother’s death.
Not needing to worry about the physics or side effects is essential for the film’s point to come across. Maybe she can’t be inside this house where she is reminded of her lost mother–or even reminded of her childhood when she feared inheriting her mother’s condition. Nelly, of course, thinks like many children might when their parents go through when a parent leaves; “Is it my fault? What could I have done differently.” But when the children talk about it together, Marion reassures Nelly, “You didn’t invent my sadness.” One point it seems that the film is making is how much easier it can be to process these feelings with somebody else around to help distract from them. When alone, Nelly and Marion both seem to be quite melancholy. But they’ll put on a play together, make pancakes, and build their hut in the woods. This temporarily helps to distract them both from their respective sadnesses. It highlights that while these girls are written to be more emotionally intelligent and mature than you’d assume, they don’t yet have the tools to help themselves handle their emotions.
Child performances are usually quite difficult to get a meaningful performance from, but directing children is no strange act to Sciamma. She directed Zoé Héran as a 10-year-old in “Tomboy.” So she knows how to get these emotional and evocative performances from these girls that make the film that much more grounded and moving. There are moments where tears are difficult to hold back, like how Nelly gets to give her grandmother that last goodbye she told her mother about earlier, where she knows that she won’t be able to see her again. The lack of score is also surprisingly appreciated, keeping us always focused on the characters and their dialogs together. Overall, the film is like said at the beginning. Very relaxing yet still engaging, bringing on the emotions that the characters themselves feel to not only teach you about themselves, but maybe even yourself as a viewer.
The film originally premieres at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was acquired for North American distribution by NEON, with no distribution date currently set.