How do you take the personal and make it feel universal? That was the task at hand for Céline Sciamma with Petite Maman, her follow-up to the massively acclaimed 2019 romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The world was at Sciamma’s feet after the reception she garnered for that instant classic, which resulted in some surprise when it was quietly announced that her new feature would be a 70-minute intimate childhood drama. A director achieving mammoth success in the independent scene and not jumping to a giant blockbuster franchise? What are the odds?
Petite Maman again demonstrates how lucky we all are to be living in a world where Céline Sciamma is making movies. Harkening back to her earlier films, such as Water Lilies and Tomboy, the focus of Petite Maman is on childhood, a part of life which the filmmaker seems to have an innate understanding of. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl who, after the death of her grandmother, is taken to her mother’s childhood home. It’s there she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl the same age as her who is constructing a hut in the woods, something Nelly’s mother her told her she used to do back when she was a child. Nelly and Marion strike up a quick friendship, reflecting those instant bonds we’re capable of forging in our youth that are more difficult to come by in our later years.
To give away any more of where Petite Maman goes in a narrative sense would be to reveal far too much of this gently surprising trip into an aspect of ourselves, and our loved ones, we never quite have the fortune of exploring. This relationship between these two young girls ends up connecting Nelly in unexpected ways to both her mother and her grandmother, building a bridge through generations to understand better the people closest to her. Sciamma’s subtle narrative trickery is a master stroke from a storyteller so in control of her own voice at this point in her career that she knows the value in the soft touch, in opposition to the heavy sledgehammer that a less intuitive filmmaker may have taken here.
With breathtaking images courtesy of Portrait of a Lady on Fire cinematographer Claire Mathon (also receiving raves this year for her work in Spencer), Sciamma effectively places us into the headspace of this young girl. The beauty is that she uses our portal into Nelly to examine our own childhoods, and our ongoing relationships with our parents and/or our children. What a gift it would be to have a window into the thoughts of our loved ones. To understand them the way that we understand ourselves. To bond with them as though we are bonding with a close friend, rather than someone who holds a certain title related to our lives. As much as we may believe we are close to our parents or our children, there will always be a wall there that necessitates a distance, and Sciamma tears that wall down with tremendous impact.
After creating a film of such grandeur as Portrait, folks were caught off guard by the comparative intimacy that was expected when Petite Maman was announced. It’s true that the film is far smaller in scale than her previous film, perhaps even anything Sciamma has directed to date. To believe that would make the film feel slight in any way is a grave mistake, however. If anything, this restraint has allowed Sciamma to become more in touch with her characters than ever before, and as a result connect with her audience across any barrier to tap into something innately human. It’s a gift that Sciamma knows that her film doesn’t need to be any longer than 70 minutes long. To try and extend that running time would simply diminish the experience that she has built here.
We all long to understand each other better, especially those closest to us who feel as though they’re pulling lightyears away. Petite Maman allows us to imagine what it would be like to ask the questions we’ll never get to ask, or to push ourselves to try and ask them anyway, even if we feel there is some distance preventing that from happening. Scenes challenge us all to reexamine our relationships with the people we love, to open ourselves up more to seeing that everyone is their own unique person, and we never fully know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Instead of always wondering, Sciamma presents the idea that perhaps there’s an opportunity to open up a dialogue to allow that bridge to form in our present lives. Petite Maman is a little wonder, and quite handily the best film of the year.