Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home ScreenInternational Screens International Spotlight: Petite Maman (2021) by Celine Sciamma 

International Spotlight: Petite Maman (2021) by Celine Sciamma 

Bronwyn Payne discusses Petite Maman in relation to Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
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PETITE MAMAN – Official Trailer – In Theaters April 22 | NEON

The French director Celine Sciamma has built a career creating films that are, in her words ‘about female characters because they can be themselves only in a private place where they can share their loneliness, their dreams, their attitudes, their ideas.’ From her first film, Water Lilies (2007), to the acclaimed queer period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), she traces the deep and complex journeys of change in women’s lives. This can also be said of one of her most recent films Petite Maman (2021). 

Exploring the consequences of grief, loneliness and the joy of childhood, the film asks the question of whether we would be friends with our parents if they were our age. It follows a young girl Nelly, who is helping her parents to clear out the house of her recently deceased grandmother. One day she meets another girl, Marion, in the woods, who seems to be her the younger version of her mother. Once Nelly figures this out, the girls quickly end up on the same page, and in the bittersweet 72-minute runtime we bear witness to their blossoming friendship. Sciamma allows the undulating relationships between parent and child to carry the narrative forward. The casting of identical twins, Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz, as mother and daughter, adds to the fairy-tale atmosphere that’s built out of magical treehouses and shadow monsters, and the central unexplained phenomenon. 

Exploring the consequences of grief, loneliness and the joy of childhood, the film asks the question of whether we would be friends with our parents if they were our age.

It is a film full of reflections. We see two versions of the house, in the past and present, and cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also worked with Sciamma on Portrait, frames the two sets the same way, with the sense there are always things just out of sight. The girls change in front of mirrors, listen to the same stories, and play with same toys creating a doubling effect. Autumn and all its colours place the film at a time of change. Both Nelly and Marion are coming to terms with a shift and a complication of maternal presence. Instead of focusing on the deep pain of this life cycle, Sciamma chooses to retain a light tone, centering on the innocent elation of childhood play. 

Autumn and all its colours place the film at a time of change.

Just like in Portrait, the chilly natural landscape is found to be full of beauty and opportunity. Turning leaves cover the treehouse the girls make together and a scene involving a boat on a lake has a giant concrete pyramid, a relic from ancient history made of modern material as the new and old collapse together. Yet the film avoids easy explanations. How Marion leaves and reappears as her younger self at a key moment of her childhood is never worked out, and as an absent mother she isn’t judged. Instead, we are left with a feeling of complete emotional resolution that lingers like a warm hug. If you need one film to get you through the coming winter months, and make you really want pancakes, this is it. 

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