4 out of 5 stars

The first time we see eight-year-old Nelly, she’s saying goodbye to the elderly residents of a care home, in which her beloved grandmother has recently passed away. Almost silent, apart from the occasional “au revoir”, Petite Maman’s opening scene is melancholic and heart-breaking.

Normally, you’d be tempted to give up right there and then, fearing the twee and cloying sentiment surely set to follow in any U-rated movie about a young girl coping with the loss of her gran… however, what writer-director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) delivers instead is a work of both profound and giddily imaginative; a short and sharp meditation on grief, childhood and the mother-daughter bond, with a denouement that’ll reduce you to emotional rubble. And not because Sciamma slathers manipulative music all over it (Petite Maman is score-free for the most part), or with gobs of florid dialogue, but because it’s so perfectly, precisely written, acted, and realised. That goes for the rest of her film, too.

In previous projects, such as Tomboy (2011) and My Life as a Courgette (2016)—which she wrote but didn’t direct—Sciamma showed a formidable penchant for getting into the minds of her pre-teen characters, and Petite Maman (literally “Little Mum”) continues in that vein. Jeanne (Malonn Lévana, who played the little sister in Tomboy) is perhaps the template here; a similar, sweetly impish demeanour informing both Nelly and the mysterious young girl she meets in the woods. Indeed, a scene from Tomboy, in which Jeanne plays with her food, is pretty much repeated in this one.

After leaving the care home, Nelly and her parents go to the dead woman’s house to begin clearing it out. There’s palpable friction between mum, Marion (Nina Meurisse), and Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne), a situation not helped by Marion’s unease at returning to her childhood home. In fact, her face is a picture of misery the moment she steps back through the door. The distance between husband and wife is replicated in the one between mother and daughter. One telling conversation ends with her mum saying to Nelly, “You always ask questions at bedtime”, to which Nelly responds, “That’s when I see you.”

The uncomfortable truth is Marion seems to have little time to devote to Nelly—who was perhaps closer to her gran than her mother—and uses the need to clear out the house as an excuse not to show her the spot in the woods where she once built a hut as a girl. Nelly’s dissatisfaction extends to her father, too, a man of whom she says, “You don’t forget, you just don’t listen.”

Lonely and bored, Nelly goes into the woods anyway and meets a girl the same age constructing a hut of her own. The autumnal setting—all dead leaves, bare branches and warm colours—is a perfect fit for the film’s bittersweet mood. It quickly becomes clear who this new arrival is meant to be—her name is also Marion and her resemblance to Nelly is uncanny (the pair are played by twins, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz). If we still aren’t getting it, Sciamma even conjures a sudden rainstorm, complete with portentous thunderclaps, to underline the possibility something seismic or even supernatural might be going on. (She used the exact same device early on in Courgette, too).

Nelly visits her new friend Marion’s home, which turns out to be her late gran’s house, only as it was 20-odd years in the past. Has she gone back through time to meet a younger version of her mum, like in some junior version of Back to the Future (1985), or is she imagining the whole thing? Sciamma invites us to interrogate exactly what is happening, but it quickly becomes clear the nuts and bolts of it don’t matter too much. This—whether sci-fi, magic, or simple daydreaming inspired by a strip of ancient wallpaper in her gran’s kitchen—enables Nelly to spend time with her mother, and thoughts of how and why quickly giving way to the delightful, heart-warming manner in which the girls’ relationship blossoms.

A scene where the two inexpertly make and toss pancakes, cackling like apprentice witches the entire time, is a particular highlight, while the hut in the woods, made fancier with a red curtain and brightly coloured autumnal leaves, stands as a metaphor for their burgeoning friendship. Nelly and young Marion understand and appreciate each other as instant besties in ways they clearly don’t as mother and daughter. It’s like Nelly’s meeting her mum for the first time… which she kind of is.

Of course, it has to come to an end, as Nelly’s dad finishes packing up the house and prepares to return home. And here’s one of Petite Maman’s dominant themes; familial relationships and friendships are horribly fleeting, as is childhood, the latter all too quickly giving way to adult fears and frictions. Young Marion reveals she wants to be an actor as the two girls write and perform a hilariously over-serious play (“I’m American but I have a Coca-Cola plant in France”), and it becomes difficult to equate the exuberant, precocious little girl with the troubled woman she (possibly) turns into.

Absence looms large in Petite Maman. The grandmother’s is most keenly felt, of course, but when adult Marion, unable to cope with her mum’s death and being back in her childhood home, suddenly leaves, Nelly is left reeling twice over. Inventing a fictional space in a bid to unravel it all, via imagined conversations with her mother’s younger self, would therefore make perfect sense.

Marion was often alone as a girl—her mum a single parent with a serious illness that confined her to bed for much of the time. When it’s revealed that young Marion suffered with a similar condition and had to have an operation as a result, you wonder how much of an impact it all must have had upon her plans, ambitions, and mental health. “You didn’t invent my sadness,” young Marion tells Nelly during one particularly poignant conversation, as the latter frets about her mother’s future emotional distance.

Sciamma’s dialogue is direct but elegant and evocative, a couple of lines taking the breath away. Nelly keeps her grandma’s walking stick as a keepsake, later explaining it “smells like her hand”, and a moment in the girls’ drama production has young Marion perhaps referencing her own loneliness when she says: “Secrets aren’t things we try to hide, just things we have no one to tell them to.” Best of all, though, is the scene in which young Marion quizzes her new friend about their mother-daughter relationship. “Did I want you?” she asks. “Yes,” comes the reply. “I’m not surprised, I’m already thinking about you,” says Marion. It’s an exchange that would be horribly gloopy in the wrong hands (let’s hope Hollywood never considers remake it), but here it’s as disarmingly sweet as it is poignant.

The premise hands Sciamma the opportunity to have fun with a variety of ‘what if’s…’. Nelly also gets to meet her grandmother as a much younger woman, while Marion sees Nelly’s dad, her future husband. The fact neither adult character points out how very much alike the girls look (the director frequently shoots them side by side to emphasise this) suggests Nelly’s plunge into the past is not brought about by time slip or incantation, but simply by her own febrile flights of fancy. Sciamma keeps her cards close to her chest, though, delivering an exquisite closing scene between Nelly and her mum that could be read in a number of ways. Always a dab hand at satisfying endings, whether happy or unhappy, this just might be the director’s most powerful and affecting one yet.

FRANCE | 2021 | 72 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Céline Sciamma.
starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse & Margo Abascal.