Petite Maman ★★★1/2
Availability: Streaming through Mubi; for more availability in the future, see JustWatch here.
Into the Woods
As the film opens, Nelly, an 8-year-old only child, appears, saying “au revoir” to several older women in a nursing home. She uses the French term for “goodbye” that means “until we see each other again,” rather than “salut,” which she uses at other times. In the last room, the inhabitant has died and a woman stands looking out the window, her back to Nelly. The dead woman is Nelly’s grandmother, and the woman with her back to Nelly—a pose indicative of the woman’s character—is her mother (Nina Meurisse). Little is said. Nelly asks to keep her grandmother’s cane. They drive to the grandmother’s house, where her mother grew up.
Nelly’s alone-ness, not quite loneliness, is central to this captivating drama.
Nelly’s alone-ness, not quite loneliness, is central to this captivating drama. She questions her mother about her life as a child, about the “hut” of sticks she built in the woods. The mother declines to provide details; she doesn’t want to talk about her childhood. Nelly—observant, precocious, serious, aware—plays by herself in the woods beyond the house, while her father and mother start packing up the grandmother’s belongings. There’s no fear for Nelly’s well-being in these isolating woods (this isn’t “The Blair Witch Project”), only a demonstration of Nelly’s independence. The next day, Nelly’s mother is gone. “She had to go away,” is all she’s told by her father (Stéphane Varupenne).
Above, identical twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz,
who superbly portray children who are wise beyond their 8 years.
That day in the woods, Nelly discovers a young girl, named Marion, very much like herself, dragging a long tree branch, building a hut, a project that soon becomes a joint one. Nelly visits Marion’s house, and sees Marion’s mother (Margot Abascal), who has a pronounced limp. Nelly tells Marion they shouldn’t visit her (Nelly’s) house, because of the sadness there.
The girls admire their handiwork, the hut in the woods.
The emotional ties between the girls develop slowly and without extensive dialog. The relationship seems authentic, one that develops not only companionship, but trust. There’s a mystery to be solved, and Nelly has the key. The way she reveals it to Marion is a quiet, poignant, dramatic moment in the film, and a special moment in cinema.
Sciamma is a master at using a slow pace and visuals, rather than words, to reveal the characters’ emotional struggles and accomplishments.
Writer and director Céline Sciamma, who wrote and directed the stunning “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), uses this unusual child’s fantasy—and we understand it as that or a modern fable, rather than a sci-fi tale—to explore how one relates to an emotionally closed-off person. Specifically, how to establish a relationship with a parent who is melancholic and removed. It’s Nelly who heals herself, who furthers her own relationship with her mother. Sciamma is a master at using a slow pace and visuals, rather than words, to reveal the characters’ emotional struggles and accomplishments. And she does so with child actors, who are notoriously difficult to work with. The film is dependent on the identical twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who superbly portray children who are wise beyond their 8 years and at the same time are simply girls with a joyous, intimate friendship.
Nelly probes her relationships and manages her own emotions.
As in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in its exploration of a lesbian relationship in the 19th century, Sciamma is adept at letting her actors show rather than speak their feelings. Similarly, “Petite Maman” is compelling in its unusual premise and in the emotional strength displayed by Nelly and Marion. The script doesn’t reveal why the mother is unhappy, nor why the father fails to provide Nelly the deeper relationship she desires (“You don’t listen,” she tells him). Nelly probes these relationships and manages her own emotions, consoling herself via her friend Marion that she’s not responsible for her mother’s sadness.
Sciamma’s fantasy story line may seem strange, unbelievable, and even a bit silly. Until one sees her film. “Petite Maman” is beautiful and haunting beyond—and because of—a story that probably shouldn’t work, but does.
Date: 2021 and, in the United States, 2022
Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal
Runtime: 72 minutes
Language: French, with English subtitles
Other Awards: 6 wins, including Best Film Not in the English Language by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and 30 nominations to date.