This haunting and extremely touching family story from French writer-director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) feels simple on the surface – partly because it runs to barely more than an hour – but its ideas and feelings run deep.
It sneaks up on you: at first, it feels like Sciamma has returned to the worlds of kids and teens that she explored in her first three films, Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lilies. And in some ways, she has: we stay close to an eight-year-old girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), as she and her mother (Nina Meurisse) leave the hospital where her grandmother has just died. They travel to the grandmother’s home, where Nelly’s mother and father carry out the painful job of packing away her grandmother’s stuff. But then her mother inexplicably disappears, and Nelly strikes up a friendship with Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl of the same age who lives nearby and who she meets playing in the woods, emulating a game her mother used to play in the same spot.
It’s at that point that Petite Maman stops feeling like straight realism and becomes something more poetic. Without revealing too much – this is best enjoyed with little prior information to hand – let’s say that the ground subtly begins to shift under our feet. There are visual cues and clues. Why does the nearby house feel so familiar? Why is it so hard to tell these girls apart?
Petite Maman moves gently in and out of mystery territory, posing questions, answering them, and then posing others. It’s comforting, as the girls form a close bond, and unsettling, as we question the meaning of their relationship.
It feels at different points like a film about mothers and daughters; about grief; about the unbridgeable gap between generations; about the unknowability of our parents’ – and grandparents’ – lives, experiences and feelings. It has a precise, wintry atmosphere to it and feels like a concise fairytale sprung from psychoanalysis, or at least from deep introspection. It finds liberty in the outdoors (especially in one scene of ecstatic musical release), but also oppression in interiors (some indoor scenes recall the sense of the walls and life closing in during Michael Haneke’s Amour).
More than with any of Sciamma’s other films with young people at their centre, Petite Maman makes you wonder how much it’s really the world of kids that she’s exploring here. Is this more the world of adults as play-acted by children? (An idea reinforced by a game of dress-up played by the two girls in the film.) Or is it the weight of the adult world on children’s shoulders – especially at times of grief – that most interests Sciamma?
Certainly, the latter idea is hinted at in a smart scene where the child ‘mothers’ her mother by feeding her snacks and a carton of drink from the back seat of the car while she drives. Petite Maman is a deeply imaginative film that also partly feels like its about imagination itself – the release the mind allows us in times of trouble. It’s moving, original and stimulating, and beautifully open to interpretation.
In UK cinemas Nov 19 and streaming on MUBI Feb 18, 2022.