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Petite Maman

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' filmmaker Céline Sciamma returns with a magical and insightful tale about childhood — and it's one of her best movies yet.
By Sarah Ward
May 05, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
May 05, 2022
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Forget the "find someone who looks at you like…" meme. That's great advice in general, and absolutely mandatory if you've ever seen a Céline Sciamma film. No one peers at on-screen characters with as much affection, attention, emotion and empathy as the French director. Few filmmakers even come close, and most don't ever even try. That's been bewitchingly on display in her past features Water Lillies, Tomboy, Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, any of which another helmer would kill to have on their resume. It's just as apparent in Petite Maman, her entrancing latest release, as well. Now 15 years into her directorial career, Sciamma's talent for truly seeing into hearts and minds is unshakeable, unparalleled and such a lovely wonder to watch — especially when it shines as sublimely and touchingly as it does here.

In Sciamma's new delicate and exquisite masterpiece, the filmmaker follows eight-year-old Nelly (debutant Joséphine Sanz) on a trip to her mother's (Nina Meurisse, Camille) childhood home. The girl's maternal grandmother (Margot Abascal, The Sower) has died, the house needs packing up, and the trip is loaded with feelings on all sides. Her mum wades between sorrow and attending to the task. With melancholy, she pushes back against her daughter's attempts to help, too. Nelly's laidback father (Stéphane Varupenne, Monsieur Chocolat) assists as well, but with a sense of distance; going through the lifelong belongings of someone else's mother, even your spouse's, isn't the same as sifting through your own mum's items for the last time. While her parents work, the curious Nelly roves around the surrounding woods — picture-perfect and oh-so-enticing as they are — and discovers Marion (fellow newcomer Gabrielle Sanz), a girl who could be her twin.

The Sanz sisters are identical twins IRL, and why they've been cast is right there in Petite Maman's name. Spelling out anything further would be saying more than is needed going in; flitting through the story's intricacies alongside Nelly is one of its many marvels. Like all kids, she's naturally inquisitive about her parents' upbringings. "You never tell me about when you were children," she complains to her dad, who counters that, actually, he and her mother do. Like all kids, she's also keenly aware of the special alchemy that comes with following in your mother and father's youthful footsteps, all just by being in the house and roaming around the woods where her mum grew up. There's nothing as immersive in helping to understand why one of the people that brought you into the world became who they are. Indeed, it's no surprise that Sciamma and her cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on FireSpencer) shoot the film in golden and glowing autumnal hues.

Nelly has questions for Marion, too, and vice versa; however, spending time in each other's company, watching the connection that springs and embracing every emotion it evokes is Sciamma's plan for the quickly thick-as-thieves pair. Explanations about what's happening are unnecessary; only the experience itself, the mood and the resonance it all holds are what matters. So, the girls do what kids do, whether amid all that ethereal greenery or inside Marion's home, decked out in vintage decor as it is, where Nelly meets her new pal's mother. The two girls play, including in a teepee-like hut made out of branches. They write and perform their own play, costumes and all. They share secrets, talk about their dreams for the future, make pancakes, bust out boardgames, and also float through their new friendship as if they're the only people who matter — in that intimate, serious and earnest way that children do with their friends.

Sciamma is exceptionally skilled at many things, creating richly detailed and textured cinematic worlds high among them. She doesn't build franchises or big fantasy realms, but surveys faces, spaces, thoughts and feelings — exploring them like the entire universes they are. The Sanz duo's pint-sized features whisper and bellow about the world whenever Mathon's lens looks in their direction, as Sciamma is well-aware. The young actors welcome Petite Maman's audience into their own insular zone, in fact, and it's a revealing place to inhabit. The landscape that surrounds them is just as laden with meaning and mood, brimming with possibilities as it is to Nelly and Marion. It's a playground, as all forests are to young hearts, minds and limbs. It's also the place that brings them together. That it never appears anything short of magical is hardly astonishing, even for a filmmaker as acutely attuned to her characters' relationship with their scenery as Sciamma has always been.

That love for observing, soaking in the minutiae and letting what's seen speak louder than what's said — and doing all of the above with sensitivity and matter-of-fact naturalism — pulsates through every frame of Petite Maman like a heartbeat. The film resembles a gentle but soul-replenishing breeze in its rustic look and serene pacing, but it thrums with feeling and insight about forging one's sense of self and navigating generational angst at every moment. It's a modern-day fairy tale, too, complete with its glorious twist, musing deeply on mothers, daughters and the ties that bind in the process. It predates them on the festival circuit, but it'd make a heartfelt triple bill with Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All At Once. With Sciamma returning to the adventures and emotions of childhood again after dancing with adult longing in her breathtaking last movie, Petite Maman is as radiant, affecting, smart and perceptive a reminder there is that the links between parents and kids are their own unique realms.

With French cinema's abundant array of coming-of-age tales — from François Truffaut's French New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows through to Sciamma's pre-Portrait of a Lady on Fire films — Petite Maman springs from a rich history. It's a movie about history, in its own manner, but it also never treads in anything else's footsteps. That's one of its filmmakers many gifts, because no story she's brought to the screen yet has ever felt like it's been told this way before (and if Petite Maman had to be compared to another director's work, it'd by the enchanting and spellbinding visions of youth that Hayao Miyazaki has committed to animation). Here, Sciamma is clearly working in miniature. Her protagonists are petite, as the title makes plain. Her choice of locations is condensed, and her style and storytelling is modest. The movie itself only runs for a concise 72 minutes, not that it ever feels rushed. There's nothing tiny about a film that's as potent and wondrous as this, though, or as deeply moving.

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