While there is a myriad of ways to describe Petite Maman, the effect that it has on the viewer is one of a warm hug. It’s a ray of sunshine through the leaves of a forest on a rainy day. This is my way of saying that it is wonderful and you should watch it, regardless of what I am going to say in the following few paragraphs. Director Céline Sciamma has created another emotionally resonant film and a worthy follow up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
As the story opens, we meet Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a young girl whose grandmother has just passed away. While it has been a loss for Nelly, it has also been one for her mother. One of the film’s first scenes has Nelly watching her parents hug after they have emptied grandmothers room at the nursing home, and while it’s never clear what exactly is going on, we know that not everything is quite right.
As the film shifts to grandmothers home, a rustic house on the edge of the woods, Nelly’s mother leaves for a few days. We never really know why because no one thoroughly explains it to Nelly, and the film is entirely from Nelly’s point of view. One day as her father is cleaning, she ventures into the woods and meets another young girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and they become friends. Sciamma doesn’t outright tell us what is going on, instead letting Nelly slowly put the pieces together in front of us. Eventually, the central conceit is revealed: Nelly’s new friend Marion is actually her mother. Somehow, in walking through the woods, she ends up back in time and befriending her mother at the same age as her.
It sounds cheesy, but the result is an absolute delight. An exercise in both emotional understanding and wish fulfilment, the fantasy of knowing your parents when they were young is fascinating, and that twin sisters play Nelly and Marion brings that to an even deeper place. The sisters already have such an unmistakable bond that in the scenes of the playing, in particular one where they make crepes together, you can tell that they aren’t acting.
At just 72 minutes long, it feels like we don’t get to spend enough time with Nelly and Marion, and that feels like it’s by design. As the two girls realize who they are to each other and speak about their relationship and feelings, they don’t get that much time together before Nelly has to leave. Still, that time is so essential and so lovely that it leaves an enduring mark on both of them and helps them understand each other and their grief, sadness, and inner lives.
Petite Maman may not be a long film, but it will reach into your soul and make you feel things, and it is one of the best films of the year.
Petite Maman played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival. It has been acquired for distribution in North America by Neon Pictures with no release date yet announced. MUBI will distribute it in the UK & Ireland in February 2022.
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