In Céline Sciamma’s dream-like coming-of-age drama Petite Maman, the eight-year-old Nelly isn’t yet carrying the burdens of adulthood. But she experiences a first glimpse after her maternal grandmother dies. Nelly doesn’t cry (does she even understand?) and her parents, probably separated, never project their full grief. Regardless, Nelly’s mother (a delicate Nina Meurisse) becomes distant, often gazing at nothing. This might be the first time Nelly witnesses quiet depression.
The family travels to the grandmother’s house to pack things away, and the mother departs for a little while. Not told exactly where she’s gone, Nelly occupies the bounteous days exploring the autumnal forest behind the house. She finds another eight-year-old girl, who looks a lot like her and shares her mother’s name.
Sciamma avoids giving any grandiosity to this magical, impossible meeting. Her regular cinematographer Claire Mathon (Spencer) proceeds with a simpler visual style, but maintains a gentle confluence of mundanity and fantasy. To Nelly, this other girl Marion – who, she realises, is her mother as a child – is as tangible and acceptable as anything else. They play dressing-up and build a hut made of tree branches; Nelly even goes to Marion’s house. The two worlds exist side by side, divided in time.
It’s easy to slip into the grown-up habit of guessing the answers. Is this all in Nelly’s head? Has she travelled in time? Does the forest have supernatural powers? But the best way to experience Petite Maman is to let the worlds wash over you. Nelly doesn’t care about the logic of it all, so why should anyone else?
The film runs at a succinct 72 minutes, but never moves faster than necessary. Like Sciamma’s other films (Tomboy in particular), each scene proceeds with a nourishing patience, the atmosphere relaxed. The result is a nostalgic slideshow of moments and memories that continues to flicker in the mind, even summoning tears as if these moving images once belonged to you. The needed hugs, the child feeding the parent crisps as they’re driving, the knowing stares after a shared thought.
All of this would amount to nothing without the naturally absorbing central performances from twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. Their sibling connection sparks an immediate friendly chemistry. Much like the fairytale elements of the film, Sciamma strips back the potential hyperbole (this isn’t Disney) and enhances the realism in their acting. Despite Nelly's fantasy, her grief still lingers in the air.
And ultimately, Petite Maman is a short film about grief: told from the perspective of a child who doesn’t know how to process it. Sciamma skilfully skirts around the usual funereal clichés, turning the well-worn regret of not saying goodbye into something genuine, abstract and beautiful. The magic of the film is in its possibilities; the sadness from its inevitable submission to the real world. It's a riveting modern fairytale that cradles your soul and carries it through a mythical land.
The tragedy is when the lights come up, and you're obligated to resume as an adult.
Petite Maman will be in UK cinemas on Friday 19 November and available on MUBI from Friday 18 February 2022.
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19 Nov 21 – 19 Nov 22, IN CINEMAS
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