Berlin: Celine Sciamma on 'Petite Maman,' Kids, Time Travel and Hayao Miyazaki

Petite Maman with inset of Celine Sciamma
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Celine Sciamma's new film, 'Petite Maman' premiered at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival

In her new film, the French director of 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' tells a time-travel tale of an eight-year-old girl who meets her own mother as a child.

Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma's follow-up to her 2019 international breakthrough Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a more intimate affair.

The acclaimed French filmmaker has switched the erotic charge and sexual politics of her 18th century period drama for a more personal story of love and loss in a tale of an eight-year-old girl trying to connect with her mother.

But there's a twist: Petite Maman, which premiered this week in competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, is a time-travel story. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her beloved grandmother and is helping her parents clean out the childhood home of her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse). While exploring the surrounding woods, she meets a girl her own age named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who, she soon realizes, is her own mother as a child.

Neon, which released Portrait of a Lady on Fire domestically, this week picked up North American rights to Petite Maman from mk2.

In her first interview for the film, Sciamma spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about working with kids, how Japanese anime inspired the movie and why the real flux capacitor is memory and imagination.

You wrote the screenplay to Petite Maman before the pandemic, but was there something about the experience of lockdown in France that made you decide to do this story as your next project?

Oh, yeah, definitely. I thought a lot about kids during this lockdown and this whole crisis. I still do. I felt that kids needed heroes and heroines of flesh and blood right now, and we need to address them, to include them. What has been happening to kids since the beginning of the pandemic gave the story more urgency.

In my career, I've had the chance to meet a very young audience. [Sciamma's 2011 feature] Tomboy was 10 years ago and is still shown in a lot of schools in France. Then there was My Life as a Zucchini [Claude Barras' 2016 animated film, directed from Sciamma's screenplay]. I have gotten to meet and talk to kids a lot. And I wanted to give them that cinematic experience. I had kids in my heart and in my mind writing the film.

I had to think of kids in lockdown while watching the movie because the girls in it have so much freedom — to run outside and play – something many kids right now don't have.

Yes, but of course they are also confined in a way. They are locked down. A kid is always locked down inside their family. In the film, I felt like talking about loss and death, which we've had a lot of right now, but you know, the experience of lockdown maybe gave me more courage to believe we could create cinema while all locked in our houses. That we would team up and lock ourselves in the studio. The whole process of making a film has always seemed like a kind of personal lockdown.

This is a time-travel story but the way you approach time travel is completely different than in a Christopher Nolan film or in Back to the Future. Most time-travel movies, usually made by men, focus on the mechanics of time-travel, the flux capacitors, and such. What appealed to you about the idea of time travel and why did you take this different approach?

It took me some time to actually acknowledge the fact that I was writing a time travel film. I realized it in the process of writing. After writing the first draft, I was like, "oh, this is a time-traveling movie." At first, I thought it's a movie about the present. It's not a movie about the past or the future, because you don't even know when exactly the film is set. So we're not really traveling in time, it's more space traveling in a way.

I think that makes it special. The film kind of abolishes the time-traveling we were used to in cinema. Usually, there's this kind of tourism in time travel movies. It's often about what does the character gain? With Back to the Future, time-traveling lets you go back to a better, more comfortable life where your parents are happy and you have a lot of money — the capitalistic version of time travel.

In my film, the time machine gives my characters the present. It gives them time together. It's time travel as reuniting people. And this is something that we can actually do. We have that traveling machine in ourselves.

You can see my time-traveling machine as being about memory, but it's also about imagination. You can look at a picture of your parents, of him or her, as a child and you can put yourself in that picture, you can imagine yourself back in time. The film is trying to unlock this level of our own time-traveling machine, which is in our minds.

Maybe that is also why this is a good pandemic film. Right now we have to rely a lot on this imagination machine in our minds. We can't know the future because there is a lot of uncertainty. We are in our houses alone and we can't travel. Many of us are losing people right now. We need our imagination to travel, to reach each other.

You mentioned that the film isn't set in any specific time period. It could be 2020, it could be the 1980s or the '90s. How did you design the sets, and the costumes, to create this ambiguity?

That was the hardest part of making the film, honestly. Because it is counter-intuitive for me. At first, I was going to build two sets of the same house and maybe they would be linked by the kitchen, you know? That would be the link between the present and the past.

Then I realized that this is not about the present and the past. So it has to be the same house. We decided to make the past and the present the same — the same colors, the same lighting, the same common space. It was the same for the clothes. It was the same with sound design. The acoustics of the two houses are exactly the same. Every song you hear in the past is the same as you hear in the present.

I did the costumes myself on this film, which is what I've always done except for on Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because there we have to have a costume designer. I'm a costume buyer! Here every costume, every piece of clothing is from today. But there's no specific period you can notice. Which makes the film timeless.

Of course, it might feel more comfortable for people of my generation. I'm a 42-year old woman, I grew up as a child in the '80s and '90s. A lot in the film I took from my own childhood. But from the response to the film so far it seems people can relate to it, whatever generation you come from.

How did you cast your two leads (Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz)? They are identical twins but remain very distinct characters.

Well, we did this very fast. I always work with the same casting director [Christel Baras] and, especially this time, it would have been difficult to see many people ... I only saw three kids. The first one and then this duo.

And I really wanted to work with sisters. For several reasons. The idea of the film — what would happen if you meet your mother as a kid — suggests a lot of questions. Is she your sister? Is she going to be your friend? Is she your mother? Are you her mother? Do you share the same mother? I mean, when you talk about the nuclear family, you literally share the same genes, the same DNA. So I wanted a bold casting that would show this.

I also really wanted the two girls to know each other, so they would be comfortable working together and that their scenes would have an immediate intimacy.

And it's an amazing thing because you know, as a director, I'm always very prepared. I belong to the category of controlling directors — I'm not looking for an accident, I'm carefully trying to master what I shoot. But having the two of them as sisters created something unique, and beautiful, and surprising.

How do you work with such young actors?

Well, we don't rehearse. Working with young actors is really going with trust. I never see them act beforehand. Because that's not their job. It's my job to make it happen on set. When I work with teenagers, it's different. Then we do rehearse. But with kids, I think that's too much pressure.

Of course, it's kind of crazy, to say this kid is going to be in every frame of the film and you don't know if they can perform. But that's how it works. You hand them your trust and have to believe in their intelligence and their competence. I mean kids, they are so admirable. I fully trust them. They aren't cynical and they're honest. It's about trusting them and being very, very well prepared. Shooting with kids you only have three hours on set per day, so you have to know what you want. You have maybe four or five takes to get a scene.

Have you ever thought about what you would ask your mother if you met her as a child?

Of course. I wrote the film. So yes. And all my questions are in there. I don't think there are any secrets in the film. With this idea, you could tell the story in several very different ways. You could do a "Petit Papa" — a young boy meeting his young daddy, which would maybe be completely different, and I'd really enjoy seeing that too.

The way I made this movie was both to put out the big questions, the ones we'd all ask — which is why I don't go into great detail with the characters, I want everyone to relate to their situation, so see themselves in it. But there's a lot of my personal history and feelings as a kid in this film. It is very often very personal.

You've referenced Hayao Miyazaki as an inspiration for this film. How so?

Miyazaki and Japanese anime in general. I think [Miyazaki's 1997 feature] Princess Mononoke is one of the most beautiful films ever. It's how it's directed to kids, how it really considers kids as the most intelligent audience. There's that belief and the faith in the rhythm and pace of his movies.

I was also thinking of Miyazaki's music and his kid characters, like in My Neighbor Totoro (1988). These are tales that believe in the power of cinema and in kids, as an audience. ... I have a belief in the radical poetry of cinema, of the tools of cinema. Making the film I was thinking a lot too about the women pioneers of cinema who invented studio shooting, who invented magic realism. I thought: "I have the same tools as they had."

This film could have been made at the beginning of cinema. During lockdown, I watched a lot of films from Mabel Normand and Ann Hui. And I thought: "let's make a film using the same tools, with the same beliefs behind them about what is possible in cinema."

What was the inspiration for the song in the film — The Music of the Future —which you wrote with Jean-Baptiste de Laubier?

I knew from the start I wanted a song. And, for the first time, I wanted lyrics with it. Well, there are lyrics to the song in Portrait of a Lady, but they're in Latin, so nobody gets them. But this was about trying to write a song that, with lyrics in French, would be a song for kids.

What we talked about was to write a song that could be the theme music for a cartoon that doesn't exist but that we could have watched as kids. There is always a lot of experimentation going on in kids' cartoons.

It might be the only place that feels a bit nostalgic in the film, but the lyrics are all in the future tense. The song is called The Music of the Future and the first lyric is: "The voices of kids will sing your dreams/The dream of being a child with you/The dream of being a child without you /The dream of being a child far away from you/The dream of finally being with you."

The song looks a lot like the film. It's a track that feels timeless and, because it's in the future tense, sees hope in the future. And the film does too.

Interview edited for length and clarity.