Céline Sciamma follows Portrait of a Lady on Fire — arguably her best film in an already sensational career — with Petite Maman, a lovely reminder of the filmmaker’s interest in themes of childhood, transitions and liminality. At a perfect 72 minutes, the 2021 production is Sciamma’s shortest feature to date. A number of observers, as well as the filmmaker herself, have pointed out the movie’s thematic similarities to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and it is not difficult to imagine Petite Maman, with its generous sprinkling of magic dust, as an animated fairytale from Studio Ghibli.
The great strength of Petite Maman blooms from Sciamma’s straightforward treatment of the experiences of protagonist Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a child experiencing grief and confusion following the death of her grandmother. Accompanying her parents to clean out the house where Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) grew up, Nelly meets a little girl building a fort in the adjacent woods. This neighbor, who is also named Marion, is the mirror image of Nelly and is played by Sanz’s twin sister Gabrielle. As the action unfolds, Sciamma explores the nature of this curious doppelganger.
Is this new playmate real or something conjured from Nelly’s imagination? Are young Marion and older Marion one and the same? Are we in the territory of Back to the Future, in which time travel allows a child to meet a parent when the two would be the same age? Sciamma places Nelly’s spiritual and emotional growth at the forefront of Petite Maman, skipping any explanations for the supernatural impossibility right before our eyes. Nelly accepts Marion as her mother-to-be, taking the opportunity to develop a deeper and richer understanding of the person Marion was, once upon a time.
Sciamma was one of the four screenwriters who worked on the adaptation of Gilles Paris’ Autobiographie d’une Courgette, and the sensitivity she brings to the inner lives of young people carries over to Petite Maman. In an interview with Little White Lies’ Lillian Crawford, Sciamma acknowledges that she considered animation as an option for Petite Maman while she was promoting Courgette, but in the end, viewers are fortunate for the warm autumnal charm of the live action edition that ended up being made. Sciamma has spoken about her admiration for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as a film that “changed the way” that she looks at cinema, and the visual rhymes and echoes made by the Sanz twins are doubled by the filmmaker’s Lynchian introduction of duplicate houses.
Many of us have felt as if we missed the opportunity to express a perfect goodbye to someone we thought we might see again. Nelly’s own frustration and regret at not getting her own farewell to her grandmother just right is compounded by what she perceives is her inability to properly comfort her mother, who leaves the house while Nelly is asleep. In older Marion’s absence, young Marion materializes in Petite Maman, giving Nelly the opportunity to understand her mom not as a parent but as a peer. Sciamma’s handling of the interactions between the kids is as confident and as beautifully realized as the depiction of relationships in Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.