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There’s a gorgeous scene early in Petite Maman that epitomizes the unfussy economy and emotional perceptiveness of Céline Sciamma’s films. Watching intently from the back seat of the family car as her mother climbs in, stifling tears, and they head off to begin packing up the home of the maternal grandmother who has recently died, the film’s 8-year-old protagonist asks permission to break out the snacks. Seldom taking her eyes off her mother in the rear vision mirror, the girl snarfs down a few cheese crisps before the frame closes in on her parent at the wheel.
Without another word being spoken, we see the child’s little hand reach forward to pop one, two, three snacks in her mother’s mouth. That’s followed by a juice box as the straw is brought to the driver’s lips. The scene ends with the gentlest smile breaking through the pain on the mother’s face as both of the girl’s hands reach around the headrest to caress her shoulders in a comforting hug. It’s a moment of casual observation that conveys the preternatural maturity of young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) while hinting that her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), may be prone to depression in addition to her grief.
Following the exquisite slow-burn passion of Sciamma’s first period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French writer-director returns here to territory closer to that of her 2011 feature Tomboy, swapping out late-stage childhood in place of preadolescence. All five of her films, which include Water Lilies and Girlhood, share an intimate understanding of the female psyche. Nelly may be the youngest yet of Sciamma’s principal characters, but the depths of her curiosity and imagination make her no less enigmatic.
The loss of her grandmother is possibly Nelly’s first experience of death, and while she’s still sorting out her feelings, wishing she could have said a final goodbye, she’s also very watchful of her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), almost protective of her. Nelly wants to know about the makeshift hut her mother has told her about, where she played in the surrounding woods as a child. But after spending a night looking through her old school books, Marion returns home abruptly the next morning, leaving Nelly with her easygoing father (Stéphane Varupenne).
With her dad busy emptying out cupboards and sorting through the house’s contents, Nelly is free to explore the woods alone. She encounters a girl identical in age and appearance to her. With the brisk informality of children, the stranger asks Nelly to help her drag a large branch over to the wooden shelter she’s building. When they eventually get around to introductions, she identifies herself as Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).
The time-matrix magic of a girl meeting her mother as a child would seem to be entirely antithetical to the limpid naturalism of Sciamma’s films. It’s easy to imagine other directors shaping a similar scenario into a Christopher Nolan-esque mind-bender or a comedy in the Back to the Future mold. Or to use Sciamma’s own far more apt reference, it could have been a Miyazaki fantasy. But what’s most captivating about Petite Maman is the simplicity with which Nelly embraces her discovery. She accepts the bizarre occurrence instantly, facilitating the audience’s acceptance of it as a manifestation of the fantastical dream logic of childhood games rendered in tangible everyday terms.
The woodland scenes were filmed outside Paris, with the blazing reds and oranges of the fall foliage positively glowing in DP Claire Mathon’s crisp visuals. The interiors of Nelly’s grandmother’s house were constructed in a studio, though there’s nothing artificial-looking about them, from the muted colors to the semblance of natural light and soft shadows through windows. The house becomes a meeting point of past and present, reality and imagination, a way for Nelly to access memories that are not her own.
As the friendship develops each day between Nelly and young Marion, they play in two different versions of the same home, one in the unspecified present day and the other in Nelly’s mother’s childhood. Their time together is the period immediately before Marion is to undergo surgery, and Nelly’s concern for her echoes the solicitous kindness she shows toward her adult mother. A scene in which Marion seeks advice on what to pack in her hospital suitcase is achingly sweet, and yet in the manner of the best French films about children, Sciamma observes without sentimentalizing.
Nelly never interrogates her friend from another place in time, but there’s a gentle sense of her eagerness to learn, not only about her mother but also her beloved grandmother. She reimagines her bond with her mother as a friendship of equals, perhaps erasing the barriers that keep her at a distance from her grown-up mother’s sadness.
For her part, the young Marion responds to the news that her friend is actually her daughter with a similar unsurprised acceptance. Her only direct question pertains to what Nelly is listening to on her headset: “Is that the music of the future?” Her curiosity yields a bouncy song composed by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier with lyrics by Sciamma, designed to summon the idea of a 1980s TV cartoon theme tune, which provides the soundtrack for an enchanting detour into childhood adventure.
As she demonstrated in Tomboy, Sciamma is a gifted director of children. There’s never a false note in the Sanz twins’ work, from the unencumbered swagger they bring to Nelly and Marion’s physical play to the seriousness with which they consider both each other and the adults. (In addition to her own films, Sciamma previously revealed her insight into the instinctive learning experiences of childhood in her screenplay for the 2016 stop-motion animated feature, My Life as a Zucchini.) But the carefree moments here are equally delightful, such as the girls sharing giddy fun and laughter while making pancakes.
Admirers of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with its intricate crosscurrents of art, desire and power, equal parts intellectually and erotically charged, might find the director’s return to more pared-down storytelling and modest scale a disappointment. But Sciamma has always shown impeccable skill at illuminating her characters by noticing the tiniest details of their behavior, and Petite Maman is a beguiling continuation of her work in its purest form.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Lilies Films, in association with France 3 Cinéma
Cast:Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal
Director-screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier
Production designer: Lionel Brison
Costume designer: Céline Sciamma
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Sound designer: Valérie de Loof
Casting: Christel Baras
Sales: MK2 Films
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