Céline Sciamma’s latest film “Petite Maman” is so simple and modest in terms of story and characters that I was surprised by how effortlessly it engaged and then touched me a lot in the end. Yes, her movie is just about the unlikely relationship between its two young heroines, but what is achieved by Sciamma and her cast and crew members here in this film is sublime and powerful to say the least, and the movie is inarguably another distinctive work in her remarkable filmmaking career.
The story is mainly told via the viewpoint of an 8-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who recently lost her grandmother as shown from the opening scene of the film. As her mother is emptying the grandmother’s room at some facility for old people, Nelly kindly says goodbye to one old lady after another, and then we see her and her parents coming into her grandmother’s house, which is located in the middle of some remote forest area.
As staying in her grandmother’s house along with her parents for a while, Nelly encounters a number of old stuffs including the ones once belonging to her mother, and she wonders more about why her mother has not talked much about her childhood years. While she is certainly as loving and caring to her daughter as her husband, Nelly’s mother still does not seem to want to talk about her old childhood years, and Nelly cannot help but become more curious about how her mother was in the past.
And then there comes a little unexpected change. When she becomes scared of the darkness of night just like any other child around her age, Nelly comes to sleep besides her mother, and Nelly’s mother gladly gives her daughter some comfort as they eventually get asleep, but then Nelly finds in the next morning that her mother is gone for some unspecified reason. As giving her a bowl of cereal as usual, her father assures to her that everything is all right, but Nelly becomes worried about whether her mother is all right, and she comes to spend more time outside the house.
When she is around a spot which seems to be her mother’s old special place, Nelly suddenly encounters a small young girl around her age. She is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, who is incidentally her co-star’s sister), and it does not take much for her and Nelly to befriend each other because they instinctively feel a sort of kinship between them right from the start. When Marion later suggests that they should go together to her house, Nelly does not hesitate at all, and we soon see them going to Marion’s house.
Around that point, we come to see how extraordinary Marion and Nelly’s situation is. I do not go into details more here, but I can tell you instead that Nelly come to have more curiosity on Marion and Marion’s mother, who has no problem with accepting Nelly into her house. As spending more time together, Marion and Nelly become quite close to each other like sisters, but Nelly is well aware that their good time will not last that long, and she may have to tell Marion about who she really is.
There is some suspense around Nelly’s growing conflict along the story, but the movie constantly maintains its dry and calm attitude while focusing more on the playful interactions between its two young heroines. At one point, they embark on making a small play only for themselves, and we are amused as observing how they are alternatively cheerful and serious about this little play of theirs. While they freely wield their imagination during their planning stage, they try to look as serious and convincing as possible once they play their respective roles, and Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz will remind you of how child performers are often more natural and effortless than adult performers. Now I am thinking of what my late mentor Roger Ebert said in one certain review: “Maybe we are all born as great actors, but after a certain age, most of us morph into bad ones.”
During its last act, the Sciamma’s screenplay doles out several moments of poignancy in addition to paying some attention to a few adult characters in the story, who are as considerate and understanding as those thoughtful adult supporting characters of Hayao Miyazaki’s great animations films such as “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), which were incidentally one of the main sources of inspiration for Sciamma. I noticed how tactfully Marion’s mother lets Marion hang around with her new friend, and I was particularly touched by how Nelly’s father gently accepts his daughter’s urgent request without any question. In case of Nelly’s mother, well, all I can tell you now is that you have to see for yourself what is tenderly exchanged between her and Nelly during the last scene.
On the whole, “Petite Maman” is a charming and lovable work which has grown on me since I watched it at a local arthouse movie theater of my hometown during this afternoon, and now I am reflecting more on how quickly my admiration on Sciamma’s works has grown during last 10 years. After drawing my attention for the first time via her second feature film “Tomboy” (2011), she impressed me more with “Girlhood” (2014), and then there came “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), which is indubitably the pinnacle of her career in addition to being one of the best films of the 2010s in my inconsequential opinion. While it is not as great as that film, “Petite Maman” is certainly another excellent film of this year, so I wholeheartedly urge you to watch it as soon as possible.
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Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) a huit ans et vient de perdre sa grand-mère (Margot Abascal). Elle part avec ses parents vider la maison d’enfance de sa mère (Nina Meurisse). Nelly est heureuse d’explorer cette maison et les bois qui l’entourent où sa mère construisait une cabane. Un matin la tristesse pousse sa mère à partir. C’est là que Nelly rencontre une petite fille dans les bois. Elle construit une cabane, elle a son âge et elle s’appelle Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). C’est sa petite maman.
“Petite maman” est une nouvelle proposition de récit de voyage dans le temps. Un voyage intime où l’enjeu n’est ni le futur ni le passé mais le temps partagé. Un voyage sans machine ou véhicule. C’est le film qui serait la machine et plus précisément le montage. C’est la coupe qui télé-transporte les personnages et les réunit. La logique du studio est venue renforcer cette idée d’un cinéma primitif et très ludique et confiant dans ses outils éternels. C’est très étrange qu’un filmtienne dans une boite dans laquelle on rentre par une porte. Ça rend très joueuse. La beauté de la construction d’un décor, c’est que tous les métiers participent et qu’on étend le champ de la conversation à la mesure du champ d’intervention.
Le travail de construction est passionnant parce qu’il engage toutes les questions de mise en scène. C’est le rythme d’un travelling ou d’un personnage qui est en jeu dans la profondeur d’un couloir à déterminer. C’est le son des pas qui engage les revêtements des sols. Ça ne veut pas dire que c’est le choix de la facilité, au contraire, c’est plutôt le choix du raccourci poétique le plus radical. Les enfants n’ont pas tout notre bagage culturel et sa pression, ils sont donc très ouverts aux nouvelles idées et récits. Les films d’animation des studios l’ont très bien compris d’ailleurs. Quand on regarde la sophistication du scénario de “Vice Versa” ou le rythme psychédélique de “Lego le film”, on sent que ça s’adresse à des esprits très agiles et super disponibles. Profondément, Petite maman est rêvé comme une expérience à égalité entre les adultes et les enfants. Il est pensé pour rassembler en offrant les mêmes opportunités d’implication et de sensations pour les spectateurs petits et grands. Un terrain de jeu commun en quelque sorte, comme pour les deux héroïnes. Le film tente d’inventer une nouvelle circulation entre les générations et les corps. C’est pour ça qu’il est pensé pour la salle de cinéma. C’est une expérience collective, physique.
Written by Gregory Mann