Céline Sciamma’s Wonderful Petite Maman is Small in Scale Yet Massive in Scope

The phrase “it’s quality, not quantity” feels like it was invented for Petite Maman, writer-director Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Just 72-minutes-long and set almost entirely in and around a small area of woodlands, the filmmaker’s latest still manages to pack more emotion and truth into its slim runtime than most movies twice its size.

Petite Maman centres on young girl Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) in the aftermath of her grandmother’s passing. Alongside her parents (Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne), the child goes to stay in her mother’s childhood home in order for the trio to sort through the belongings the old woman left behind. However, early into their stay, Nelly’s mom decides she needs time alone to process the loss and takes off in the middle of the night, leaving Nelly with her father.

Confused by her mom’s abrupt departure, Nelly distracts herself by exploring the house’s surrounding woods. Quickly, she makes friends with another young girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). However, upon accepting an invitation to Marion’s house to hang out, Nelly comes to realise her new friend is actually her mother as a child – the “little mom” of the title.

Throughout her filmography, Sciamma has proved gifted at capturing seemingly minute, intimate moments with such honest precision that any viewer can relate to and become invested in them. With a simple line like: “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” in Portrait of a Lady, she turned a lesbian love affair between an artist and her muse in 18th century France into something universal, a story that anyone who ever experienced a passionate first love could understand.

That gift is again on display in Petite Maman. Here, Sciamma eschews the type of time travel plot mechanics over which a more standard movie could get bogged down in favour of laser focusing in on primal childhood anxieties and child and parent relationships. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find a scene as simple but beautiful captured onscreen this year as early on when Nelly and the older incarnation of Marion leave the hospital after Nelly’s grandmother’s death. Sensing how upset her mother is, the young girl reaches over from the backseat to feed her driving mother crisps and juice before hugging her in an effort to make her feel better.

The movie that follows from there is completely devoid of any artificial tension. In fact, there is very little tension at all. Instead, the narrative feels more like an act of wish fulfillment. After all, the age gulf between children and parents separates them to a great extent. Young children can never know truly what their parents were like at their age. They will only get to understand why their guardians were the way they were in their middle age with the benefit of life experience. But by the time that maturity comes, their parents will have already moved into a new stage of their life or perhaps shuffled off this mortal coil.

In the backdrop of the gorgeous woodlands – Sciamma turning what could be the limitations of making a movie during the pandemic into an advantage, with the setting adding to the film’s fairytale-like air – Nelly gets to know a happier, purer version of Marion, one unencumbered by the weight of the world. She sees how similar she is to her mother, with the pair able to discuss their feelings openly in a way that they perhaps could not with the gulf of age.
Another example of Sciamma’s ability to make viewers weep with emotion with just a simple interaction is the moment when Nelly tells young Marion that she will give birth to her daughter in her early 20s. “I’m not surprised. I’m already thinking of you,” the little mom responds, giving Nelly the reassurance she was seeking, that she was wanted.

Helming movies like Water Lillies, Tomboy and Girlhood, Sciamma has had plenty of experience directing child actors and it shows here. A huge amount of Petite Maman’s quiet power is down to the real-life twin performers Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. In the lighter scenes, such as them hilariously acting out police procedurals together, the two are adorable and innocent but never cloying. Yet, at the same time, the pair manage to display a level of maturity beyond their years during the movie’s more dramatic scenes, something important for the film’s premise to work. In the way the characters act as children, we feel like we are getting a glimpse of the adults they will grow into.

A movie both parents and children can both enjoy, Petite Maman further cements Sciamma as one of the best filmmakers working today. No one is making films as entertaining, truthful and powerful as her right now. Long may she continue to do so.

Petite Maman is screening on November 18 as part of the IFI French Film Festival before its Irish release on November 19.

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