- Director: Céline Sciamma
- Writer: Céline Sciamma
- Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascal
- Release Date: October 7, 2021 (NYFF)
Petite Maman Trailer
I asked my mother whether she felt her age or whether she felt younger a year or two ago, and she said she felt younger. I confessed to her that I still don’t feel like an adult, that I feel more like a teenager masquerading as a person in their mid-twenties most of the time. I wanted to know if my mother had ever experienced this sensation, and if she had, if it ever went away—if people ever reach a point where they recognize that they have finally, officially transitioned from adolescence to adulthood and shed their teenage years. She admitted that she sometimes feels like she should be doing things differently: like a woman in her early sixties. But, for the most part, she still feels like a child in every way that isn’t physically visible. When Céline Sciamma follows up her critically acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire with Petite Maman in 2019, the French director offers an entirely different experience: a much more intimate experience. A concise, 73-minute (yet nonetheless moving) portrait of grief, parenthood, and the constant dialogue between our past and present selves is depicted in this documentary.
The death of Nelly’s maternal grandmother prompts her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to take her to her mother’s childhood home, where she meets up with her aunt and uncle (Joséphine Sanz). According to all accounts, Nelly and her mother appear to get along well together. After collecting her grieving mother’s cheese puffs and apple juice from the nursing home, Nelly cradles her mother’s neck in an embrace as she drives away. Nelly is a good daughter who does good things for others. However, grief is a concept that is foreign to a child who is wise beyond her years and eager to pretend to be an adult, but who is still far removed from the reality of death. During the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, as her mother purges the house of old family belongings, Nelly laments, more out of annoyance than anything, that she didn’t say goodbye to her relative in the way she should have done. If she had known it would be her grandmother’s last goodbye, she would have given her a more heartfelt farewell. It is impossible to know, her mother says, and they both fall asleep with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders.
However, when Nelly awakens the next morning, she discovers that her mother has vanished. Because of an implied absence that Nelly is familiar with, the shock of the discovery is less devastating. And Nelly’s spacy but well-intentioned father is unable to provide a straight answer as to where her mother has vanished, but he does not appear to be overly concerned about it. He’s familiar with the grieving process, but he’s hesitant to share it with a young child because it’s difficult for him to understand. In order to keep herself occupied during this confusing interlude, Nelly, who is an only child, goes off to play in the woods by herself. There, deep in the woods behind her mother’s old house, Nelly comes across a little girl who is about her height, has the same hair color and face shape as her, and who lives in a home that looks exactly like the one that Nelly came from, just beyond the path in the woods where she came from. One of the characters is a young girl named Marion (who happens to be Joséphine’s twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz), who is busy building a fort out in the woods using branches that Nelly’s mother used to make when she was around Nelly’s age.
Nelly, who is precocious and imaginative, doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on as she continues to accompany Marion into the forest each day to assist her in building her fortification. In a similar vein, it’s no surprise that Nelly eventually brings Marion home to meet her father, who can see Marion just as clearly as Nelly can, despite her initial reservations. Marion is, after all, his wife, and he loves her. It is not implied that Marion’s existence is simply a product of Nelly’s immature, overactive mind; rather, Petite Maman portrays this manifestation of Marion’s young self as a coping mechanism for the loss of her mother. Petite Maman is set in the present day and is set in the year 2000. Fortunately for Nelly, who is eager to ask her parents questions about their lives before she was born, this is an especially fortunate circumstance. Because we spend our lives knowing only a fraction of our parents’ true selves, the rest of us will never be able to experience what Nelly has, who suddenly sees her mother as a peer and an equal.
It’s a heartbreaking, tear-jerking film that serves as a meditation on mortality and the brief window of time we are given in which we can only have a compromised understanding of who our parents were as children. Stunningly atmospheric and almost saccharine in its sweetness, the film is buoyed by the twin Sanz sisters, who make their feature film debuts and are colorized vividly by cinematographer Claire Mathon, who uses crisp, autumnal hues to create a sense of being both out of time and eerily adjacent to death. Several shots, such as one in which Nelly sits on her bed with an orange glow of sunlight hanging above her head, evoking the presence of a supernatural presence, serve to reinforce this point. The physicality of children, which Sciamma and company brilliantly capture, their camera eager to linger on every awkward little body movement expressed by Nelly and Marion to paint a picture of these children as full human beings, is also something Sciamma and company capture brilliantly. I think it ties into the film’s depiction of the thread that runs through it, which is how there isn’t nearly as much separation as one might think between one’s childhood self and one’s adult self, and how easy it can be to retreat into the safety of our past selves in order to protect ourselves from the pain of our present selves.
Sciamma uses a delicate touch to create a profound, easily digestible film that takes heavy themes and breaks them down into bite-sized chunks. She examines the manner in which we communicate with one another and with ourselves at all ages, and how these exchanges are inevitably dulled when there is a rift between a child and his or her parent. Even as time has stripped us of knowing ourselves, the time has also stripped us of knowing our parents, their close proximity to changing our diapers and teaching us how to drive stunted by the lives we create as we grow into our own people, and as we come to understand that our parents are also individuals. Petite Maman is about the dialogue we have with our families that is just as meaningful, if not more so, in the midst of the fractures that are inherent in our relationship with them, as it is when we are apart.