Petite Maman – Film Review

In this era of overlong and overstuffed movies, it’s nice to see a very simple story told well in under two hours, like this tender, sensitive and gentle modern fairytale from the French filmmaker Céline Sciamma.

I loved Sciamma’s previous film, the exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire, so I went into her follow-up eagerly without really knowing much about it, other than that the heroine of the movie was a little girl. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is an eight-year-old only child, quiet, sombre, and seemingly used to solitude. Her mother Marion just lost her own mother, who passed away in a care home, and now she and her partner take Nelly to Marion’s old childhood home, somewhere in the countryside ablaze with spectacular autumn colours.

Stressed and overwhelmed, Marion disappears one morning to grieve on her own, leaving Nelly and her dad to finish cleaning out the house; it is implied that her mother’s absences is something that Nelly is used to. Soon after, while playing in the woods around her grandmother’s house, Nelly meets a girl of the same age, building a fort out of tree branches. Her name is Marion and she bears more than a passing resemblance to Nelly (the two girls are played by real-life twin sisters). After playing together for a while, they go back to Marion’s house, a mirror image of the house that Nelly left by a different path earlier. It’s revealed that Marion is about to have an operation in order to save her from the hereditary bone disorder that’s tormenting her mother – same disorder that eventually killed Nelly’s grandmother.

I think that the best movies about childhood make you remember things from your own childhood that you forget as you grow up, including the ability to take the fantastical at a face value, without questions or scrutiny. Though they are naturally curious about each other, the two girls accept this magical collision of the future and the past, as if making friends with an eight-year-old version of your own mother was the most natural thing in the world. They don’t try to make sense of it; most of the time, Nelly and Marion are quietly enjoying each other’s company, playing pretend, reading and making pancakes.

The movie also brought back the memories of playing happily by myself out in nature, where leaves and twigs were all the toys you needed, and the night fears brought by the creeping shadows in your bedroom. The slow, deliberate pace of the film is a reminder of the way time passes oh so slowly when you’re a child. Remember when days, weeks and months didn’t simply whizz by, and three months of summer school holidays felt like an eternity?

Sciamma’s film may explore heavy topics like death and illness, and has the adult sadness hovering around its edges, but she handles this ghost story in a remarkably calm and restrained, almost casual manner. A wonderfully sensitive filmmaker, she resists underlining big emotional moments, lets the audience to fill in the blanks, and uses visual storytelling to portray characters and their relationships. Just like in her previous film, not a whole lot may be happening onscreen, but a lot is expressed through gestures, glances, and simple actions and dialogue.

P.S. I imagine that a lot of parents nowadays would be utterly horrified by the idea of their child going off to play in the woods by themselves without any kind of supervision, but it’s also kinda sad to think of the lost freedom that the previous generations of kids used to enjoy.

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