Petite Maman – Review

“A beautiful film in its direct approach, wandering through its gently fantastical world while quietly revealing the depths of its insights, its connections, and its extraordinary emotional reach.”

by Ken Bakely

In Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, everything is so softly self-apparent – and this is perhaps the single highest compliment I can bestow for it. It’s a beautiful film in its direct approach, wandering through its gently fantastical world while quietly revealing the depths of its insights, its connections, and its extraordinary emotional reach. The setup slowly unwinds in turn: Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl who has just lost her grandmother, who was raising her. She is reunited with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) and taken to the wooded home where her mother, Marion, grew up. The relationship seems distant and tentative, and this feeling is furthered when Marion quietly disappears one morning, apparently to return at some later point. Nelly passes the time in this secluded space – it seems there isn’t anyone else around in the forest – until, when out exploring, she happens upon another girl (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s also named Marion, she’s the same age as Nelly, and looks uncannily similar. What’s more, when they go back to Marion’s house, they find that her mother is, well, a younger version of Nelly’s grandmother. One can only assume that she’s somehow interacting with a younger version of her mother and grandmother, while still existing in her own time and place.

What is to be done with this new relationship? And that is the right, and only, question to ask – Petite Maman considers this scenario from its most intimately interpersonal parameters. It does not extrapolate its setup to any grandiose ends, objectives, or proclamations. Instead, it moves with a lilting rhythm, and the heart of its allegory is right there the whole time, as if floating through a swaying breeze. Sciamma examines ideas of childhood, of loss, of individual and shared memory between family members, and does so with a gorgeously textured, meticulous attention to specific moments and details. Places, feelings, and events are often remembered first through individual sensations than through the grand gestures, and Sciamma understands this: Petite Maman is such a warm, enveloping movie, atmospheric on what a less observant filmmaker would overlook entirely. With Claire Mathon – a marvelous cinematographer who Sciamma worked with on her previous film, the exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire – even the sparse, darkened interiors or the thickly wooded foliage of the forest are given heavenly glows. Inside, dust filters through the air; outside, every ray of sunlight sneaks through the clouds and the leaves. Despite the outlandish nature of the movie’s setup, we can easily fixate on the minutia and the interplay between these characters when the film does such good work on making us feel like we can experience every space on such a grounded level.

This is a movie that comes at the viewer with such plaintive immediacy – that’s the guiding aesthetic core that puts us right there in the center. But of course, considering the time-space-continuum-breaking logline, there’s a degree of irony to that. And while Sciamma does not make it the focal point, she does examine that seeming dissonance. This is the baseline of the story’s central focus: it literalizes the idea of experiences colliding, turning the idea of a family’s collective experiences into one that really does exist all at once. Petite Maman has the calm guidance of a children’s story, but it is predicated on what we might consider a very adult concept – wanting to know more about your parents as human beings – that, here, happens to be filtered through the ideas of youth, personal connection. The movie observes change and grief, and it wants to reach back to figure out what we carry with us, what we’re given, what we inherit from those who raise us, and how we figure out what that is on our own journeys. It’s such an accomplishment for all of that to be so comprehensively addressed in only 72 minutes, and it’s a testament to Sciamma’s succinct, thoughtful artistry that she is able to navigate so deftly through this material that nothing ever feels lost or short-changed in the process. The pulse of this story is clear and strong. Everything Nelly does – in how she interacts with Marion, and how she processes it all – is because she wants to know more. The movie never forgets that, and it’s the core from which everything else so hauntingly and movingly emerges.