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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Petite Maman (2021)

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

In this day and age, it really is a mammoth task to be able to provide a true family film that is actually for the entire family. These days, family films, or anything rated U, ALL, and G tend to aim their focus solely on children. Films like Spy Kids are most certainly great little movies for kids (as the title suggests), but that’s where it ends (for me at least). The humour, plot, activities and themes seem to only be interested in entertaining kids (which is totally fine) but unfortunately, this has them age rather terribly. We just aren't who we were when we watched and loved them as kids, making it harder to revisit and enjoy without the added misery of being an adult inflicted upon us.

But then you get studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli (and of course the Paddington movies most recently) who have truly mastered the art of making grown-up movies for kids and kids movies for grown-ups, films that offer stories and experiences that relate differently to each viewer depending on where they are in life - allowing them to adapt appropriately with its audience as their perspective on life changes the older they get. The Toy Story series for instance is wonderful at this. They mature/matured with their audience over the years and continue to reveal additional nooks and crannies to its themes, ideas, humour and characters. The fact that my three-year-old nephew, his parents (who are in their mid-to-late 30), and his grandfather (in his 70s) all relate to and love these films for all their own, specific reasons, shows the timeless lasting power of Toy Story. And of course, that’s just mentioning Toy Story - films like Inside Out, Up, Wall-E, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, Only Yesterday, Kiki’s Delivery Service (just to name a few) deals with complex ideas and emotions that are made easy to understand by both child and adult even when subtleties of performance and story are in place. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and with Céline Sciamma’s latest, she has managed to join that very small group of filmmakers able to make something the entire family can sit down and enjoy, regardless of age, allowing us to pinpoint aspects of the story that speak to us as individuals.

Nelly, along with her mother and father, is grieving the loss of her maternal grandmother. They’re at her home and in the process of cleaning it out. But one day, Nelly’s mom leaves. And soon after, Nelly meets a young girl by the name of Marion in the forest, someone who looks identical to her, sharing the same name as her mom and living in a house extraordinarily similar to that of her grandmother’s.

Sitting at a lovely running time of just 72-minutes, Sciamma shows once more just how skilled she is in not only conveying complex themes and ideas through the subtleties and simplicity of her storytelling, she shows just how much one can say in such a short amount of time. Nuance is hard to nail, especially in family films as you are trying your darndest to make sure everyone gets it, most particularly the kids, without shouting about it using a bullhorn. But once again, Sciamma nails it with delicate subtleness through her script and direction. She never opts to talk down to children or even up at adults through either perspective, she writes it as best as she understands it now and how she understood it back then as a child.

Despite the high-concept time-traveling aspect of the story, Sciamma doesn't let it derail the thematic intent and necessary feel of the film. It’s hard to grapple such big ideas with such a young pair of performers, but what is so obvious is that they get the ideas that are played with in Petite Maman. As Sciamma mentioned in an interview, if the girls didn’t understand it, then she’d throw the idea out, simplifying it enough that even a child can understand the nuances and themes that run amuck in Petite Maman that include grief, saying goodbye, motherhood, and of course Sciamma’s favourite theme of identity - tied together here by the generational bonds between daughter, mother and grandmother. Why complicate things for everyone if they can be conveyed and discussed in a clear and simple way? The girls also don’t appear to overreact to the strangeness of the situation, effectively bouncing between different spaces in place and time that feels authentic and right for the ideas of the film, letting Petite Maman come to life.

Sciamma often discusses identity within her films, most notably that of gender and sexual identity in coming-of-age stories. But we haven’t really seen Sciamma tackle grief, not in a live-action feature at least (she touched on it in her wonderful script for the animated feature My Life as a Courgette). No one dies in her films (except in Courgette of course), so it’s mostly new territory for her. But thankfully her ideas and interpretations of identity help elevate the themes of grief, helping us further understand the context it has within the identity of these characters and how the grieving process brings both mother and daughter closer together.

Nelly lies in bed as her mom tucks her in. Nelly is inquisitive with which her mother asks, “You always ask questions when you have to go to bed” Nelly responds, “That’s when I see you”. Nelly so badly wants to understand her mother better. Whenever she asks questions about both her mom and dad’s childhood, they just refer to them as silly stories and they’re merely a child’s matter. “I’m a child, I’m interested”. We forget that sometimes we were kids too. And that’s the magic of Petite Maman, it reminds us of what it was like to be a child, to see through their perspective.

When Nelly and Marion meet, Nelly realizes very quickly that it’s her mom at 8, the same age as her. Instead of questioning the strangeness of it all with “where, why, what, how, when?” Nelly goes along with it, taking advantage of this opportunity to really understand and grow closer to her. They’re no longer just mother and daughter here, they’re now friends - brought together by the memory and presence of Marion’s mother and Nelly’s grandmother as they prepare to say goodbye. Thanks to this time-hopping pathway in the woods provided to her, Nelly connects with her mom in ways she never knew she could. They bond over their similarities, she sees the hopes and dreams Marion has for her own future., they make pancakes together in what is easily one of the sweetest, most contagious scenes of 2021. It’s beautifully layered and incredibly simple storytelling that takes high-concept ideas of time traveling and simplifies it, focusing on the more important beating heart at the center of Nelly and Marion’s story. Sciamma doesn’t need to overthink and complicate the fantasy, time-travelling element of the story. At the end of the day, it’s a film about the process of grieving and how it brings people closer together, further identifying with their past, present and future.

The child’s perspective is the most important thing about Petite Maman, but as mentioned before, we never view these children or speak to them in a condescending manner. Every shot is filmed at the same eye level as Nelly, with grownups sometimes having to kneel down into frame to speak with Nelly at her height. We see what she sees and therefore we are eight again, experiencing this world through the eyes of Nelly that doesn’t ever need to be hyper-stylized or over-exaggerated.

Petite Maman is appropriately simple through dialogue, plot, performance and style that remains consistently warm and inviting throughout. It doesn’t invite or ask for us to come back into a world of childlike wonder and curiosity, it just happens. It flows from moment to moment. The edit helps simplify these moments in space and time, blending them together seamlessly that allows for both us and Nelly to understand what is happening - pushing through the strangeness of its time-traveling concept while also further embracing the process of grieving as Nelly and Marion finally accept that their gran and mother is gone.

It’s important to mention again that Petite Maman is something that could easily be enjoyed and understood by someone at any age (I hope at least). Young or old. There’s no specified era through an over-indulgence in slang, technology or fashion to even suggest that there's a bias in place towards a specific generation who will "get" this more than another. And like Pixar and Studio Ghibli, they invite everyone to be a part of the magic that unfolds because these stories and ideas are for everyone regardless of time and space. A true family affair. One that is so infectious in its palatable sweetness with moments of unequivocal warmth and joy (and some sadness) scattered about that never feels like it's pandering to nostalgia, it just happens, letting you feel like a child again.

Sciamma’s second collaboration with cinematographer Claire Mathon after Portrait of a Lady on Fire (who also shot the glorious Spencer last year), Petite Maman is beautiful to look at. Every Sciamma work is a stunning visual affair, but with Mathon’s added touch, Petite Maman reaches that painting-like feel that Portrait also gave us. Shots are exquisitely framed, prioritizing the perspective of a child in terms of height and even the simplicity of what they are looking at and experiencing. The extensive use of autumnal colours creates that warmth and nostalgia of exploring the outdoors as a child, but it is also important for the internal journeys with which both Nelly and Marion go on. They’re having to undergo the natural order of change just like their environment, maturing along with it in the process. Reds, blues, yellows and light greens give us such a gorgeous visual representation of these characters and their environments, making it feel as though we were watching a long lost Studio Ghibli film, a studio whose films proved to be a massive influence on Sciamma and her team of creatives in putting together the look and feel of a world that feels like a fairytale, but still rooted close enough to reality.

But Petite Maman wouldn’t have as much charm and magic as it did if it weren’t for the twins of Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz. Directing children is hard, especially if they aren’t actors. It challenges you to explore outside the confines of your script, challenging you to hone in on your themes and ideas with a razor-sharp focus. Sciamma has always had a knack for writing, creating and directing child characters expertly. She also has a fondness for the perspective of a child and it shows here in every frame and line of dialogue. As mentioned before, the girls just get it. They’re convincing because they get it. It’s important to note that no improv occurred between them. They performed the lines and understood every word written and conveyed to them by Sciamma. The evidence is right there on the screen through their movement, minimal dialogue and glancing looks that convey a thousand words. It’s another testament to the majesty of Sciamma’s work through plot, dialogue and direction as she never steers away from what she intends to say. There’s no real conflict or antagonist found within Petite Maman, just a situation that has these two characters drawn to each other in an effort to bond and grieve together, drawing them closer as daughter, mother and grandmother.

Petite Maman is just gorgeous. One of my favourite film journalists, Mark Kermode, mentioned how this is a film that rejuvenates your love for cinema. He’s right. And although there were multiple films in 2021 that made me feel that way, none of them did it quite like Petite Maman. It's a complete representation of what makes cinema so damn great. It had me smiling, laughing and crying in equal measure, further convincing me just how powerfully effective the medium can still be with just 72-minutes to do so. Céline Sciamma is a true master of her craft and with Petite Maman, she proves once more why she is one of my all-time favourite filmmakers that has yet to put a foot wrong. It's quite simply, for me at least, the perfect little film.

Where you can watch it: Now in theatres (USA), Mubi (UK), coming to theatres May 5th (Australia), most VOD platforms (Netherlands, France)

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