by Jordan King
What is cinema if not an elaborate game of playtime and make-believe? When you pick apart narrative film and strip it down to its core, it is little more than a group of people playing dress-up, pretending to be someone else, telling a story and hoping it all feels real enough to make sense of the oftentimes otherwise nonsensical. For Céline Sciamma’s slight yet stunning follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman, the French filmmaker finds herself returning to childhood to craft an ode to imagination, an elegy to loved ones passed, and a tender tale spun from the simple idea of a daughter being given the chance to make friends and talk with her mother as a child. The result is a Miyazakian slice of magical realism that fills the heart and elevates the soul.
Eight year old Nelly, played quite beautifully by newcomer Joséphine Sanz, is saying goodbye to the residents of a nursing home when we meet her. Clare Mathon’s camera meets her at her level and glides from room to room, before falling on the scene of an empty bed and Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) staring pensively out through a window. ‘Can I keep her cane?’ Nelly asks as the penny drops that her grandmother has died – ‘It smells like her hand’ she will later explain, reminding us of the sensory presence of the departed we all search for in their physical absence. An empty bed and a question that asks one thing whilst revealing another introduces death’s role in the film. It is simultaneously everywhere, alluded to by Mathon’s superlative framing and the film’s gorgeous use of lighting, and nowhere – it is its own ghost in a story filled with spectral wonder.
Sciamma’s film is not a ghost story however, at least not in the more traditionally scary sense. It is rather a low-key time-travelling feature as imagined through the eyes of a child. When Nelly, her visibly grief-stricken mother, and her oblivious but amiable dad (Stéphane Varupenne) arrive at her grandmother’s house to clear it out, it quickly becomes apparent that her parents have – through wilful dissociation or simply the passage of time – grown disconnected from who they were as children.
Whilst Nelly gets excited by the prospect of visiting the hut her mum built as a child in the luscious, Hundred Acre Wood reminiscent forest outside, her dad struggles to remember it at all (‘You don’t forget, you just don’t listen’ Nelly later remarks with all the innocence that the brutal honesty of adolescence can muster). Her mother on the other hand remembers it all too well, but has no enthusiasm to revisit a place she used to adore as a child. When Nelly’s dad drags out the grandmother’s fridge, revealing the wallpaper that furnished the house when he and his wife were kids, for a lingering moment Mathon captures like a great portraitist the disconnect between Nelly’s mum and her memories of youth. The worn lime-green wallpaper fills the space behind Nelly’s mum’s sullen figure, suggesting that the past and present have become separate entities to her. As we will soon learn though, the past is nothing more than the path that lays behind – sometimes all it takes is the curiosity of a child willing to walk it.
On Nelly’s first night at her gran’s house, she creeps downstairs for a glass of water. A little spooked – her mum had earlier told her of the black panther that she used to imagine in the shadows – she slides into the settee bed her mum has made for herself. ‘I’m sad’ she plainly tells her mum. When pressed on why, she says she’s sad because she didn’t get to say goodbye to her gran. More specifically, she’s sad about the fact that her last goodbye wasn’t good enough, ‘because I didn’t know’. Regret is an inextricable element of grief, and to see Sanz articulating it with such unaware profundity is a testament to the way Sciamma has managed to immerse herself wholly in an eight year old’s worldview. When Nelly’s mum lets her show her how she would have said goodbye, it’s like the hug that they share has opened a door.
The next morning, as Nelly finds her way through the sun-speckled autumn leaves of the woods looking for her mum’s hut, she happens across a little girl who looks just like her. Without having to say a word to one another, the duo who could be and in real life are twins (Gabrielle Sanz is every bit as believable as her sister on screen), run through a spontaneous rainstorm together as Nelly helps finish building a hut just like the one she has been looking for. Things get stranger yet for Nelly when she finds out the girl in the woods is called Marion – that’s her mum’s name – and they’re both exactly the same age and have just lost their grandmother. And when Marion invites Nelly to her house, the lime-green wallpaper and the presence of Marion’s mum – who has a cane just like Nelly’s gran’s – soon makes it apparent that something a little bit more than coincidence is at work here.
As the girls strike up a fast friendship in the woods where they play, at Nelly’s gran’s house things are a little more complicated. Seemingly unable to cope with the memories that have been brought on by a return to her childhood home, Nelly’s mum has left prematurely, leaving Nelly and her dad alone in a big old house together. Though her dad struggles to do the whole paternal thing as easily as he may like – his admission that his greatest fear as a child was his father says a lot in few words – he does try to connect with his daughter, even allowing her to help him shave his beard. Clean-shaven, Nelly’s dad looks like a new man – ‘You’re handsome’ she notes, making up a little for her roughhousing him earlier on. That such a simple thing as a beard kept out of habit being shaved off can de-age Nelly’s dad in her eyes makes the notion of her mum showing up as an eight-year-old a little easier to navigate for the inquisitive daughter.
Through role-playing with one another as investigators (a delightful little story-within-a-story that illuminates Sciamma’s exploration of the self-interrogations we carry out through play), getting up to no good, and noticing all the ways in which their lives seem to parallel, Nelly and Marion seem quite calm about the realisation that they are becoming friends with their mum and daughter respectively. ‘I have a secret’ Nelly tells her new friend, ‘I’m your daughter.’ Marion’s only question in response is ‘are you from the future?’, which says a lot about the open mind of a child. And so ensues an opportunity for a mother and her child to connect unencumbered by a gulf in age and perspective, leading both to understand one another better through travelling down the path of the past together than they can at the crossroads they find themselves navigating in the present.
Filled with exquisitely written dalliances with child logic and a reverie for the magic of make-believe, Céline Sciamma has conjured a masterpiece in miniature that says a great many profound things in a great many more playful ways, all whilst continuing the filmmaker’s impassioned focus on the female gaze. Destined to be held in the same regard as other masterworks of art that explicitly celebrate childhood like My Neighbor Totoro, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Swallows and Amazons, and The Secret Garden, Petite Maman solidifies Sciamma’s status as one of the greatest directors of our time. C’est magnifique!
Petite Maman is playing at the BFI London Film Festival
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