Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman (2021)
Céline Sciamma knows how to pack a punch of emotion in each and every frame. From her coming-of-age drama Girlhood to the hypnotic, smoldering Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma always finds a delicate way to leave a reverberating impression. Her latest film Petite Maman is a subdued gem of a story. Following a girl’s visit to her mother’s childhood home, the story is told from the perspective of Nelly (Joséphine Sanz). Having just lost her grandmother, and while her parents clear out the home, Nelly is often left to find engagement in her own little world. Therein lies an enchanting realm where she encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age and to whom she strongly resembles. A friendship is born as the two build a hut in the woods, play make-believe, and simply enjoy each other’s company. The more conversations they share, personal revelations begin to blur the lines between past and present tense. Packing a punch with a fleeting runtime, Petite Maman is a bittersweet experience in which every minute is precious for its characters. As magical as it is melancholy, Sciamma’s story speaks to the delicate threads embedded on the path from childhood to adulthood.
Petite Maman radiates warmth in a cool autumn breeze. In capturing the season and its simple pleasures, like the changing leaves or the comfort of a knit sweater, Sciamma beautifully conveys the emotion behind such pleasures. Autumn is a time of change; new beginnings are on the horizon, and stuff of the past get left behind. The emotional response to change can often be nostalgic, and Petite Maman has that wistful affection. Told from a child’s point of view, the film feels like a wondrous tale that speaks delicately about emotions that are difficult to put into words. Or magical trains of thought that a person may not have another soul to share with. One of the most resonating lines in the film talks of secrets; not all are deliberately hidden, there’s just no one to tell them to. The pang of loneliness that moves through each character manifests on such subtle levels elevated by remarkable performances. Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz deliver such memorable, joyous work that lay at the core of the film. Lingering as well are the gorgeously detailed cinematography by Claire Mathon, and affecting music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier that hits at all the best moments.
Sciamma’s talents are a perfect match for finding the sweet spot between joy and sadness. Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) is going through a rough time, having just lost her mother/Nelly’s grandmother (Margot Abascal), which emotionally brings her back to when the two of them were distant. The act of clearing her house opens a window to the moments when those spaces were both empty and full. What this film does exceptionally well is convey the powerful sentiment of activities that seem so simple on the surface. Petite Maman is a treasure chest of memories old and new. Sciamma treads the line seamlessly between the past, the present, and the future. Nelly comes from the path behind Marion, and so forth, which the film conveys through minimal heartfelt dialogue. The story traces the beauty and loss of a mother-daughter relationship. Harkening to the wistfulness of wanting to know more about my own mother, and not being able to converse with my late grandmother. Suddenly, children get older, and with that comes wisdom but also a touch of sadness from not knowing then what you know now. Petite Maman takes a nostalgic path, where intergenerational pebbles are left behind as stepping stones for another family member to follow. This gentle tale of women’s connections, through the motions of time, is another absolute winner from Céline Sciamma.
Petite Maman had its premiere on September 9th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.