Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is a luminous ghost story that succeeds in knitting together the themes of empathy, identity and imagination. After having recently lost her grandmother, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) heads out to her mother Marion’s childhood home to help sort out the property which is situated in the vibrant, rural woodlands. Nelly seeks out her mother’s forest den, in which she encounters a sprightly young girl, also called Marion (Gabreielle Sanz), whom she realises is an eight-year-old version of her mum.
Petite Maman’s slow opening sequence is gently toasted in a sunset glow as Nelly walks around a nursing home, saying her farewells to the residents. The passing of her grandmother is bittersweet, and the familial grief lingers as a quiet presence. Marion (Nina Meurisse) is distant in her mourning, which Nelly viscerally feels but doesn’t address in conversations. She curiously explores the house, from the peeling wallpaper to the faded books, taking in the empty space. While friendly and polite in the company of her parents, Nelly livens up when she stumbles across the other Marion. She doesn’t immediately confront the fact that she might be related to this girl, but is rather far more interested in discussing the den, and engaging in their own made-up play. Marion invites her over to a home that’s identical to Nelly’s grandmother’s, but not yet worn by age. Nelly accepts this strange world, and understands that she not only gets to meet her grandmother as a younger women, but can also converse with Marion as an individual.
Sciamma brings out remarkable performances from the young performers (who are twins in real life), and celebrates the characters’ unique personalities. The sharp and profound humour is infectious, whether Nelly and Marion are exploring the lake or just sitting with a hot chocolate, discussing how they feel about this bizarre and exciting encounter. As a character, Nelly is especially mature. She speaks confidently with her parents during conversations about death, and also makes the choice to engage in difficult conversations which adults might shy away from. Nelly’s questions are responded to maturely by the adults, which is philosophically interesting, if not a little too serious for a child, even a bright one. So much is told in such little time, and Sciamma respects the audience’s ability to engage and follow the timeline without clumsy narrative guidance. Petite Maman lives in the space between beginnings and endings, but there isn’t a need for resolutions. The film falls back into the rhythms of Tomboy, with its interpretation of the world through children’s eyes, but there’s a mystical atmosphere that shows how differently grief is understood by different generations, and how silver linings emerge from the coping process.
Petite Maman offers a portrait of curiosity, contemplation and warmth. Numerous scenes take place in the evening sunlight, with the actual sun mostly absent. The bedroom lighting feels the most magical, as the girls are desperate to make the most of their time together. Cinematographer Claire Mathon’s visual framing is just as meticulous as her work in Portrait of a Lady on Fire — gently composed, with every piece of furniture nestled into the background, reaffirming the timeless atmosphere. The costumes are also an intriguing element, lovingly designed by Sciamma herself, with Nelly and young Marion wearing similar yet not identical outfits. Their monoprint jumpers, bright headbands and corduroy dungarees are complementary shades of mustard, burgundy and aegean blue, which feels reminiscent of 80s fashion. This adds to the timeless nature of Petite Maman, in which technology is virtually absent, and reaffirms the idea of the story being a global experience. Over 72 minutes, Sciamma gracefully cements the magic of her film.
Elle Haywood (@ellekhaywood) is a freelance film/culture writer, festival juror and submissions reviewer. She is currently an Associate Editor at Take One and studying a Masters at the National Film & Television School. Her work specialises in international festivals focusing on Scandinavia and Western Europe, sociopolitical events and independent filmmaking.