Petite Maman (2021)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne
For anyone suffering from a monumental loss or undergoing a life-changing shift in perspective, Céline Sciamma’s French-language drama Petite Maman is likely to hit as hard as any film released in 2021. The Queer Palm winner’s follow-up to her widely beloved lesbian period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film presented with just as soft a touch and is just as delicate an exploration as her biggest hit, and like the Oscar nominated contemporary classic it has the capability to leave you reeling. Petite Maman is not a film that will force jaws to drop quite so often as its predecessor, but in its own quiet and considered way it is an achievement that continues Sciamma’s powerful run of fables about the experiences of women.
As was the case in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, indeed, Céline Sciamma’s three earlier feature films, the narrative of Petite Maman is squarely focused on the female experience. Here, three generations of women – daughter, mother and grandmother – are the focus, with the bond grown between two young girls being the portal into Sciamma’s latest exploration of what it means to be a woman.
Twins Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz beautifully play two young girls who come across one another in the woodland between their homes and become friends. The mirror images of one another, they form a bond as naturally as any children would, playing with sticks and chasing toys. Even with little dialogue there is a knowingness to their interactions, there is a mutual grief and child-like intrigue that bonds them.
Joséphine Sanz’s Nelly has just lost her grandmother. In the opening scene we see her walk with purpose between each room in her grandmother’s old care home to say goodbye to each of its elderly women in the way that she regrets not being able to tell her own grandma, then watch as she leaves in the car with her mother, a woman filled with grief but undergoing the traditional notions of parenting.
Petite Maman is a film best experienced without knowledge of what comes next. Even a glimpse at the official trailer could prove to give away too much of a story that softly unravels into something more cathartic and experiential than may be evident at first glance, evolving into something more than a simple tale of grief and childhood friendship.
As was the case in Portrait, Petite Maman is quiet. Here, as has been the case before, Sciamma dials back scripted story elements, choosing instead to say a lot with few words and even more with the prowess of her film language. Nelly and her mirror image Marion are softly spoken, the audio of their dialogue often nestling into the sound of autumnal leaves rustling beneath the characters’ feet or the unnatural noises of kitchen appliances. Only their laughs are played at higher volume, Sciamma always conscious of representing childhood as realistically as possible: Petite Maman is certainly existential, but the children are never too far from being fun and silly.
There seems barely a moment in which the power of Petite Maman’s message isn’t present in every creative decision. Beyond the faithful way in which childhood is so lovingly brought to the screen through limited dialogue and excellent sound mixing, Maman takes great pride in offering beauty in the details: early on Nelly grinds cheese crisps through her teeth as if to savour the taste and the experience (as well as prolong the latter), whereas her mother – having long outgrown finding richness in such an experience, and anxious of what’s to come of her life after her mother’s death – chews incessantly. As was the case in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the presentation of the girls and women in Petite Maman is juxtaposed by the presence of men, Nelly’s father introduced in a rare three-person scene in which he talks over his wife and daughter to share in his own anecdote about the wallpaper as he noisily pushes furniture round, his dominant nature becoming physical as his frame looms over his wife while she finishes a sentence under her breath.
Unlike in Portrait however, the role of the singular man in Petite Maman is not entirely uncomfortable, Nelly’s father developing into a more rounded presence with his own softness and willingness to learn. In doing so, he illustrates an evolution in this filmmaker’s authorial trait and his presence offers wider commentary on the ways in which masculinity is in itself evolving from the archaic machinations of what it once was.
Make no mistake, Petite Maman is the work of a directorial master. Blocking and camera position are key to character here, whether it’s because of how a character arrives at the centre of the frame at precisely the right time to force a shift in our emotional connection, or whether it be something taken from more traditional visual art forms and transposed onto the screen, such as when the hand of a child joins with her mother’s face as she feeds her and offers her a drink, quite literally becoming a helping hand. And further still to those keen to analyse Sciamma’s work, Petite Maman continues a number of the filmmaker’s signatures, such as women running away from the camera with the one at the front turning back to face the one chasing, and the trustworthy use of an orchestral needle drop.
In Petite Maman, everything is focused on expressing grief and loss through the experience of women, director Céline Sciamma needing no filmmaking shortcuts to force emotional resonance or to needlessly pander to inattentive audiences that need a cut every three seconds. Sciamma trusts her audience, she trusts us, and she understands film like so few others in the industry do at this time. Watching a Céline Sciamma film is an experience of the form as fascinating as any in wider arts movements, and Petite Maman is so clever, established, though-provoking, philosophical, it never loses sight of what it is to be a child, of what it’s like to see the world from a lower perspective – to imagine, to giggle, to cuddle and to exist – even while offering something that will profoundly unravel the grief in each of us.