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.
After the colossal global success of her 2019 period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it would’ve surprised not one person if writer-director Céline Sciamma followed up with another quietly epic drama in the same vein, Hot Film “Pleasure” But Sciamma has confounded expectations entirely by instead delivering a barely-feature length, 72-minute metaphysical chamber piece that nevertheless retains her prior film’s subtle yearning.
In a heartrending opening sequence, 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) says farewell to a series of elderly women at a care home, before sauntering into the empty room previously occupied by her recently-deceased grandmother, the last of whose belongings are being packed up by Nelly’s mother (Supernova).
For the next few days, Nelly and her parents are staying at Nelly’s grandmother’s FILM home while they finish clearing it out, but suddenly, Nelly’s mother disappears. Nelly then enters the nearby forest and stumbles across Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl bearing an uncanny resemblance to herself – which, amusingly, is never commented upon by anyone – and who is staying nearby with her own mother in the days leading up to an unspecified medical procedure.
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As much as the central conceit is a cute surprise, it also won’t shock anyone with even the vaguest understanding of French that, per the film’s title, Marion is actually Nelly’s “little mother” – that is, a back-in-time representation of Nelly’s mother at her own age.
Sciamma sensibly doesn’t strain to explain the machinations through which this scenario occurs – a time loop in the forest? some sort of reincarnation? – opting instead to sweep audiences along for the magical realist ride while not encumbering itself with logistical concerns.
Instead, Petite Maman uses this impossible meeting of mother and daughter to investigate Marion’s evident adult depression, to provide Nelly with a possible means to finally say goodbye to her departed gran, and also allow audiences to indulge the oft-cited fantasy of, “Would I get along with my own parents if we were both children?”
Back to the Future of course broached the concept for an older crowd with a far splashier, more involved treatment, while Sciamma instead foregrounds the basic purity of childhood play, glossed with only the most soberly fantastical sheen.
It’s easy to imagine 100 other filmmakers treating the film’s ingenious premise completely differently, swinging for the fences with deep dish time travel entanglements. Sciamma really only scratches the surface of what she could have done, but that was seemingly always the intent – hence the scant runtime.
In fitting step with her previous work, there’s no grand melodrama here to bathe in, nor any massive tear-jerking payoff either. Long stretches of the film unfold without much in the way of dialogue at all, focused instead on the sheer joy of two children, who happen to be impossibly related, playing together.
Only in act three does there really feel like a concerted effort to engage with the emotional possibilities the situation affords both Nelly and Marion, Nelly able to glean insight into her mother’s early life – her hopes, dreams, and fears – due to the un-cynical openness most all of us have as children.
Contrasting Marion’s happy childhood with her more trying adulthood is a feat of crafty devastation, though those hoping for a heart-stopping climax on the level of Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be left bemused by how small and unsentimental its wrap-up actually is.
Its slight emotional rewards are however undeniably amplified by the exceptional efforts of twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, whose natural familial chemistry is so perfectly exploited for the strange requirements of Sciamma’s story.
vSomething as straight-forward as watching the pair messily make pancakes – and, inevitably, try to flip them with hilarious results – has major emotional import because it feels like we’re watching a home movie, albeit one shot to the tune of several-million Euros. It’s incredibly rare for cinema to examine childhood grief in much detail at all, yet the film’s two young leads give highly perceptive, un-mannered performances to that end.
While the film is more visually austere than Sciamma’s previous, returning DP Claire Mathon makes the painterly most of the limited locations, namely the two plain-looking homes and the autumnal surrounding forest. Simple-yet-effective camera setups are the order of the day here, offering an observational and non-judgmental but certainly motivated window into these characters’ lives. A tender, sparingly deployed piano score from Jean-Baptiste de Laubier – another regular Sciamma colab – ties the technical package together with fitting modesty.
It’s incredibly easy to respect a film that’s only as long as it ever needs to be in order to tell its tale, and also doesn’t feel the need to elevate its admittedly potential-rich premise with outlandish embellishments. Sweet and unassuming, Petite Maman eschews the more expansive potential of its tantalising high concept for a low-key, slyly affecting paean to the deep feeling of childhood.