By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/14/21 – A much-awaited film at this year’s AFI Film Festival in Hollywood is Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman (France, 2021), a marvelous study of the female psyche in a young girl and her longing to connect with her mother. This latest film by Sciamma is a departure from the overt social messaging of Girlhood or the grand romance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A relatively short film (74 min), Petite Madam imagines what it would be like to meet one’s mother at our own age, specifically as a child. The film emphasizes the simple acts of connecting with and parting from people, and the rueful inevitability of time’s passing. The film defies linear time constraints to give us two lonely eight-year-old girls, each an only child living with a single parent in an isolated home in the woods.
The main character, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), is helping her father (Stéphane Varupenne) clean out her maternal grandmother’s home after the woman’s passing. Meanwhile, her grieving mother (Nina Meurisse) has abruptly disappeared. Nelly snuggles up with her mother on the couch in the stripped-bare living room and wakes up one morning to find her gone. The same day, playing in the woods behind her departed grandmother’s house, Nelly encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age who uncannily resembles her (the two young actresses are sisters), who shares a first name with her mother, and who happens to be building a makeshift hut out of branches around the same place that Nelly’s mother did when she was young.
When the two girls get caught in the rain, Marion leads Nelly back to her house, which turns out to be the exact same one that she’s staying in with her father – except that her father is gone and it’s a younger version of her grandmother (Margot Abascal) who’s quietly managing things. For obvious reasons, Nelly keeps the secret that she’s actually Marion’s future daughter close to the vest, and she and her child-mother become fast friends with the typical alacrity of prepubescent children. Soon, Nelly and Marion stage a play for an audience of none, each of them playing multiple roles, taking on the tasks of the siblings as neither are only children.
But all their fun plays out in the loneliest of spaces, as both the house that’s been emptied in the wake of the grandmother’s death and the one that Marion lives in exude an almost unreal stillness that colors the girls’ interactions. In the hushed atmosphere of a film without a score, we hear every rustle of clothing as the girls play and talk, emphasizing their mutual isolation even as they grow closer together.
As the friendship develops each day between Nelly and young Marion, they play in two different versions of the same home, one in the unspecified present day and the other in Nelly’s mother’s childhood. Their time together is the period immediately before Marion is to undergo surgery, and Nelly’s concern for her echoes the solicitous kindness she shows toward her adult mother. A scene in which Marion seeks advice on what to pack in her hospital suitcase is achingly sweet, and yet in the manner of the best French films about children, Sciamma observes without sentimentalizing.
For her part, the young Marion responds to the news that her friend is actually her daughter with a similar unsurprised acceptance. Her only direct question pertains to what Nelly is listening to on her headset: “Is that the music of the future?” Her curiosity yields a bouncy song composed by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier with lyrics by Sciamma, designed to summon the idea of a 1980s TV cartoon theme tune, which provides the soundtrack for an enchanting detour into childhood adventure.
The time-matrix magic of a girl meeting her mother as a child would seem to be entirely antithetical to the limpid naturalism of Sciamma’s films. As director Sciamma explained in an interview, her film feels a bit like the Miyazaki fantasy Spirited Away (2001). But what’s most captivating about Petite Maman is the simplicity with which Nelly embraces her discovery. She accepts the bizarre occurrence instantly, facilitating the audience’s acceptance of it as a manifestation of the fantastical dream logic of childhood games rendered in tangible everyday terms.
The formal expressivity of Sciamma’s film stands in a certain contrast to its characters. In Marion’s case, particularly as an adult, this reads as the numbness of grief and depression. But the children’s matter-of-fact demeanor and condensed manner of speech renders them precocious beyond their years and deeply poetic. “You didn’t invent my sadness,” Marion says to Nelly at a crucial point towards the end of the film. The more difficult-to-process emotions remain suspended in the air, manifested in the images, like the panther that Marion imagines she sees in the shadows cast on her bedroom wall.
Petite Maman screened at the AFI Fest on Saturday October 13. It was released in France in June 2021 and will have its USA release in February 2022.