In the wondrous Petite Maman, director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) revels in her finest work to date in this evocative and personal story doused with a sprinkling of magical realism. A story of mothers and daughters, of prolonged grief and the luminous connection between women of all ages, Sciamma has drawn a lovingly told fairy tale that recalls works such as My Neighbor Totoro, Still Walking, and The Secret Garden with its genteel notes of compassion and rumination on loneliness and found companionship. Perhaps, too, it hums close to our hearts, as the opening minutes deal with the process of saying goodbye and how grief will always embrace an element of regret.
As a child, no matter the age, there’s something deeply unsettling, something wrong, about watching a parent go through that grieving process. That, along with the inherent wisdom and empathy of children, combine to create an opening that’s subtle and moving in how it plays out. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother and what’s worse than her wishing her goodbye could’ve been more proper is that her mother is so obviously burnt out by it, overwhelmed by her sadness. They, along with her father, go to her mother’s old childhood home where memories have become ghosts and empty tins and discover patches of wallpaper reminders of loss rather than love. A memorial for what her mother has lost, she soon leaves, unable to process her emotions while packing away the life she knew when she was young.
It’s here where the story unfolds, though the primer and seeing the relationship between Nelly and her mother, especially with how the former watches over for the latter, informs where the rest of the film will go. While exploring the woods behind the house, Nelly comes across another girl her age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who bears a remarkable resemblance. They strike a quick, inquisitive friendship with their primary goal being rebuilding a hut in the heart of the woods. The type of friendship that only children unburdened by life can have, the mystery behind Marion soon unveils itself and, with it, allows the film to once again transform into an even greater meditation on the healing process.
Sciamma has always had an eye for natural beauty and capturing light so that the world around her characters can bask in it. Stepping outside of her grandmother’s house, the film captures the change from something rooted deeply in realism to something thrumming with more mystifying energy as she simply sets foot into the vibrancy of autumn, in and of itself a season for melancholy and whimsy. Steeped in greens and oranges, the colors paint the screen and blend into the woods she finds herself in, feet rustling against the drying, yellow leaves.
Sciamma, along with cinematographer Claire Mathon, captures the two girls from their perspectives and the fact that, at that age, there isn’t anything that isn’t big. The woods loom large around them and the hut that they painstakingly build is a feat of their imagination. Because we’re seeing it through this larger-than-life, curious lens of childhood, every moment is given greater weight because we’re seeing it with that heightened emotion, where there is no feeling too small.
Sensitively told, the script by Sciamma masterfully engages with the question of what it is to really, truly be seen and the dynamics between parent and child that travel between generations. The delicacy in which she handles grief is masterful and beautifully portrayed by the two young actresses who anchor the film. At one point, Nelly speaks aloud that she “came from the path behind you,” which is supposed to relate to how she found Marion but speaks to our lineage and how, for better or worse, we are products of those who came before us in our family.
As evidenced by the grandmother’s home that slowly begins to empty, the touchstones of what people leave behind are so often the carriers of behemoth emotions as we process our loss with what is left in their wake. In Nelly’s case, it’s a crane. In mine, it was my grandfather’s aftershave and favorite mug.
At a critical part of the film, a character in an astute and empathetic moment consoles the other by saying “you didn’t invent my sadness.” What a profound message to convey in a tender-hearted embrace of a film. At only 76 minutes long, Petite Maman approaches our collective, inescapable grief with grace and humanity. Refusing empty gestures of easy endings, of perfect goodbyes (and I know something of imperfect, forever farewells) and yet committing itself fully to its tonal warmth and its picture book aesthetics, Sciamma isn’t asking us to buy into empty gestures.
Instead, with its marvelous composition and life-affirming script, Petite Maman conjures a scenario where we’re allowed to see people unclouded by judgment, by misconceptions, by youthful perceptions of who our parents ought to be and who they aren’t living up to. The film, from beginning to end, with all of its restraint, is a tremendously moving reconciliation of loss, love, and all that gets discovered along the way.