Following the success of her Oscar-nominated Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French director’s latest offering, Petite Maman, is a pared back fairytale about grief and familial bonds
There’s a mythological quality to Céline Sciamma’s latest film Petite Maman. Set in an alternate version of present-day France that’s seemingly stripped of modern-day gadgetry, an eight-year-old girl called Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is playing in the woodland surrounding her late grandmother’s house when she encounters a doppelganger (played by Joséphine’s twin Gabrielle).
There’s hints that the young girl is Nelly’s mother: she shares the same name, Marion, and her home is uncannily similar to Nelly’s. The doppelganger’s mother uses a cane – the same one that Nelly inherits from her grandmother – and has the same hereditary bone condition that runs through their family. Whether she’s actually an eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, a ghost, or a dream, is never explained. Sciamma leaves it up to the audience to decide.
At 72 minutes long, Petite Maman is a short but spellbinding tale about grief and familial bonds. “It's a realistic dream,” Sciamma tells me ahead of the film’s premiere at the 2021 London Film Festival. “To me, the film is like a new mythology. It embodies a very simple situation but it’s also a fantasy that people don't normally have.” She pauses. “Nobody’s ever been like, ‘I’ve always dreamt of meeting my parents as kids’.
The notion of time travel is also left vague. Unlike body swap flicks like Back to the Future or Big, in Petite Maman, Sciamma eschews any typical sci-fi tropes, instead taking a hyperreal approach to her subject matter. Magic and reality coexist together without the need for time-travelling DeLoreans or body-swap carnival machines; there’s no CGI, and any supernatural occurrences – imagined or otherwise – are merely a vessel to explore the mother-daughter bond between Nelly and Marion. “I decided that the film itself would be the time travelling machine,” Sciamma explains. “The editing was a form of teleportation.”
The film, she explains, is a form of “intimate time travelling”, a way to “share a common space and time”. In the present day, both Marion and Nelly are grieving the death of Marion’s mother, but neither has the language to communicate their pain with one another. As eight-year-olds, however, the pair can connect on a level understood only by children. Joyful moments spent playing imagination games and flipping crêpes are interspersed with lump-in-your-throat scenes of pathos. “It smells like her hand,” Nelly says in one scene, clutching her grandmother’s walking cane. “You loved her a lot,” a young Marianne responds.
Best known for queer indie hits like Water Lilies and Tomboy, as well as her Oscar-nominated 2019 period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma often shines a light on the threshold between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. But Petite Maman takes us to the heart of girlhood. “I’m always working around frontiers, but this is the middle of something,” she says. “Kids are the best characters for the cinema I want to make. It's not difficult for me to write them, because they care so much. And those are the characters that I want to put on screen. They want to understand, they want to look at people, they are not manipulative, they’re speaking their mind, and they're giving all their brain to a situation, or all their hearts.”
“I tried not to fuel it with too many personal details so that it would be easy for anyone to just connect to their own story” – Céline Sciamma
Her screenplay for Claude Barras’s Oscar-nominated claymation, My Life as a Courgette (2017), is emblematic of this: set in a foster home, Sciamma paints an empathetic portrait of children surviving abuse and abandonment in the system. Despite the stern subject matter, Sciamma shines a compassionate lens on the film’s subjects, reaching into the hearts of each character to cast them in a nuanced light. “Writing for kids is really about writing for individuals,” she elaborates.
Sciamma drew on personal memories from childhood to evoke “a collective feeling” for Petite Maman. “I remember what it was like to be an eight-year-old, and I don’t think it’s really different,” she shares. The film is shot in Pontoise, Val-d'Oise, a suburb outside of Paris where Sciamma grew up. She wanted the film to feel timeless. “I tried not to fuel it with too many personal details so that it would be easy for anyone to just connect to their own story.”
In the opening scene of the film, Nelly takes turns saying goodbye to the women in a nursing home. “That’s modelled off a real moment in my life,” Sciamma explains. “I designed that character based on a ghost, my own grandmother.” Written in 2019, the scene took on new meaning during the pandemic as thousands were unable to visit sick relatives. “It was a very intimate moment for myself, but suddenly, it was fuelled with a collective need to say goodbye,” adds Sciamma.
Stripped to its bare essentials, Petite Maman is about grief, familial healing, and the missed connections that result from being in different stages of life. For instance, it’s only through meeting young Marion that Nelly begins to see her mother more clearly. “You’re often unhappy, you’re not glad to be around,” she tells an adult Marion in one of the closing scenes. “You didn’t invent my sadness,” Marion reassures her. Through bringing these two characters to an even playing field, Sciamma finds commonality in the gaps between their experiences.
“Fiction is a therapeutic tool,” she explains. “We’re always trying to understand ourselves, or even heal ourselves through therapy, or through some kind of mythological fiction. But most of those fictions are based on revelry in the family. I’m trying to find a new narrative here.”
Petite Maman is out in cinemas now