Writer-director Céline Sciamma follows her 2019 Queer Palm-winning masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire with the immensely evocative Petite Maman, which received its world premiere at Berlin today. While Portrait captured the intensity of romantic love between two women, Maman delicately and ingeniously explores the bond between mother and daughter.
Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her beloved maternal grandmother (Margot Abascal) and is helping her greiving mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) clear out her childhood home. Curious about what life was like for her parents as children, Nelly is dissatisfied with the few anecdotes they share with her which she feels reveal nothing of substance, though she is intrigued by the hut her mother made in the trees as a child in the nearby woods.
Nelly awakens one morning to find that her mother has unexpectedly left the house, leaving Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) to do the rest of the clearing. While exploring the woods alone, Nelly comes across the hut and encounters her own mother building it when she was a little girl (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister), in fact she’s the same age as Nelly is now, with her ninth birthday approaching.
There’s no high concept cause for this magical occurrence or any suggestion that it’s all in Nelly’s mind. Much of the film’s focus is on the two girls, with the pair frequently in the same frame, as they spend the next few days blissfully getting to know one another; acting out plays together, making hot chocolate and pancakes, rowing on the lake, and putting the finishing touches to Marion’s hut. Neither of the girls have siblings, and there’s a sense that each of them yearns for a companion their own age. Touchingly this time spent with the young Marion not only allows Nelly to become closer to her adult mother, but also gives her a chance to say goodbye to her grandmother, knowing that it will be the very last time that she sees her, thus helping her to process her grief.
Although the remote countryside setting with its gorgeous autumnal colours has something of a fairytale about it, the encounter between mother and daughter isn’t stylised or treated as fantastical, and there’s an elegant simplicity to the storytelling—matched by Claire Mathon’s cinematography and editor Julien Lacheray’s long takes—that captures the potency of childhood imagination and play. Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s score is used sparingly and to stunning effect during one scene where Nelly shares some “music from the future” with her young mother on her walkman headphones.
Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are both highly engaging, giving beautifully natural, rich performances, with Joséphine putting me in mind of Quinn Cummings in her Oscar-nominated role in The Goodbye Girl, another film with a compelling mother/daughter relationship at its centre. Sciamma treats her childhood subjects with respect, and doesn’t trivialise or look down on them or their active inner lives, without imposing adult sensibilities upon them.
We often know very little about the lives of our parents before we came along, and even then perhaps not much outside of our dynamic with them in their parental roles, so the idea of getting to spend time with them in their childhoods is an enticing and emotionally charged one, particularly in the context of a recent family bereavement, and it’s brilliantly realised by Sciamma, with a clarity, unhurried pace, and attention to detail that proves utterly enthralling. As the film draws to a close its emotional resonance builds to what feels like a tender comforting embrace. A gentle yet deeply moving, and indelible cinematic experience.
By James Kleinmann
Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman had its world premiere at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival where it is in competition.
NEON has acquired North American rights to distribute the film.