Most American audiences know Celina Sciamma from the incredible Portrait of a Lady on Fire that wowed audiences in 2019. To me, Sciamma became one of those directors that I just needed to watch everything she did because of her incredible film Tomboy from 2011. To anyone who had seen her filmography prior to watching Portrait, they would have all told you that it was a departure from her usual style and sensibility, that never meant she wasn’t good at it, Portrait is still one of those films that I revisit non-stop, but Sciamma, it was different.
With Petite Maman, the director returns to this sensibility that we had found in her earlier work, a style that only she could master. Sciamma is capable of putting together a story in such a short time, adept to break you into a million pieces in only 70 minutes. It’s a feat that she didn’t do with Portrait, instead, she breaks you apart over a much longer runtime, but that doesn’t mean that she has lost the touch to do so.
The truth is Petite Maman is one of the best films in her filmography. A portrait of love, grief and family that is done with such care and attention, while also being wildly innovative in the way Sciamma decides to tell her story.
After her grandmother dies, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is taken to her mother’s childhood home. While her parents go about cleaning out the house, Nelly explores the surrounding woods. She encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl exactly Nelly’s age and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. The pair become fast friends, constructing a hut together, sharing lunches, and talking over the life transitions both are in the midst of. (Marion is only days away from going to the hospital for an operation.) Incrementally, the girls’ eerie similarities yield revelations that merge events of the past with those of the present.
It is impossible to talk about this film without delving into spoilers. So, this is your spoiler warning.
Sciamma tackles grief and love in this film with such a unique twist, a twist that it is impossible to not talk about since it is weaved into everything in this feature. The reason why Nelly and Marion look eerily alike is that Marion is actually Nelly’s mother, except her past self. After her grandmother’s death, her mother’s grief takes over her, making it impossible for her to stay in her childhood home and help empty it out. And so, one morning Nelly wakes up to her father telling her that she left and the faster they empty the house, the faster they will go back to her.
That day, Nelly not only has to grieve the grandmother she lost but also deal with the emotional truth that her mother left her behind. (Even if it isn’t permanent.) It is at that moment that she stumbles on Marion. At the moment where Nelly wanted her mother the most, she found her, simply in a different form than she thought she would.
The two girls form a quick bond, Nelly understanding quickly that this is in fact her mother at the same age that she is right now. She gets to have fun with her mother, a mother who she told she never has time for her, never gets the chance to spend time with her. It’s her own way of coping with her own grief. She gets to grow up alongside her mother, even if it’s only for a few days.
Early in the film, Nelly tells her mother that she never got to say “Goodbye” right to her grandmother before her death. At first, Nelly doesn’t seem to want to spend time with her grandmother, a woman she clearly loved and spent a great deal of time with while she was alive. But over the few days, as she and Marion get closer, Nelly starts getting closer to her grandmother. Whether it’s doing a crossword with her or celebrating her mother’s birthday with her. With those moments, Nelly gets another chance to say goodbye. She gets to grieve her grandmother alongside her mother and as the car leaves one last time, Nelly finally gets the chance to say her real goodbye, the one she never got to give her before.
Time travel is never truly explained in the film, but at the same time, it doesn’t need to. They are children, the idea that they are able to cross a path and find themselves in another era is just something they accept. And so, we do too. The film is never about time travel, it’s about grief and love.
Sciamma’s pairing with cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also did the cinematography for Portrait) continues to bear fruits. The camera bleeds with sensibility, framing the dreamlike moments between mother and daughter in a light that you can’t keep your eyes away from. Both of them are in total control of their craft and being able to witness it is such a gift.
Petite Maman is masterfully crafted, creating such a blend of love and grief, unlike anything we have been able to witness before. In just over 70 minutes, we watch a film that beautifully encapsulates growing up and grieving for the first time. It’s a message that many of us can understand and this film does it with a unique twist that sets it apart from everything else.