Home » Petite Maman Movie Review: Céline Sciamma’s new film is a whimsical, shocking exploration of sadness

Petite Maman Movie Review: Céline Sciamma’s new film is a whimsical, shocking exploration of sadness

by Stewart Cole

Movie director Petite Maman: Celine Siam
The actors of the movie Petite Maman: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse and Margo Abascal.
Petite Maman Movie Rating: 5 stars

In the middle of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, two little girls play together when a woman arrives home, waving a stick. “Bonjour,” she tells the man who is not her daughter, a little puzzled because he had never seen her. The girl, Nellie, looks at her without words for a moment, and finally answers with her own “bungee”.

You see, Nelly was playing with Marion, the girl who would give birth to her when she grew up, and the woman, Marion’s mother, is her recently departed grandmother. Nelly has traveled back in time.

It is a powerful scene that, like almost everything else in this film, Sciamma underestimates as if the circumstances surrounding the meeting of a daughter with her mother of the same age were normal. There is no noticeable change in Nelly’s expression. The stage has no music. And yet, the moment is surprisingly effective, much more so, perhaps, because of the striking subtlety that appears here.

It’s not exactly Cinéma vérité, but it does have some cinematic elements.

Sciamma, who last directed the acclaimed masterpiece of the 2019 season, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, has proceeded on a very mediocre scale this time. The main characters are the girls, played by the twin sisters Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz. The adults are also there, in the form of Nelly’s adult mother, Marion’s father and mother, but at the heart of this story is the relationship between Nelly and Marion.

The Sanz sisters are both great, they play the role of the wise and the tired beyond their eight years. Their scenes together make up most of the 72-minute film, in which they roam the autumn forest, tie themselves to board games and invent their own delicacies in the kitchen. These scenes are so vivid and raw that I suspect they were not told they were filming and were simply asked to spend time together.

The twin sisters, Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz, are wonderful at Petit Maman.

It is surreal to see them talk about their shared experiences, connecting with each other about their temporarily displaced relationship. One can be a mother and the other a daughter, they interact with each other like friends anyway. In one scene, Nelly asks her 8-year-old mother if her adult version is unhappy because of her. “I do not think it’s your fault. “You did not upset me,” Marion replies.

Sciamma’s confidence in her young protagonists is remarkable as with their conversations, she has explored serious issues such as sadness, loneliness, death and acceptance.

Even for such a familiar film, the director has not compromised with her cinematic art. The film begins with a beautiful scene that follows Nelly as she apathetically bids farewell to the residents of a nursing home, where her grandmother died. The camera, by Sciamma’s regular partner, Claire Mathon, keeps its focus on Nelly and Marion, using close-ups indoors and wider outdoor and forest shots.

The film is presented, almost in its entirety, without a background score. Instead, Sciamma uses ambient sounds – leaf suspension and wind sighing – to punch in the scenes. It goes well with the vulgar, whimsical tone of the film. With the plot and themes of the film, it’s hard not to imagine, in frustration, what would have happened if Hollywood, especially (God forbid) Disney had made (or remade) Petite Maman. One can imagine a movie very drowned in visual effects, dance sequences and istrionic to make a lot of sense. Maybe there would be cute, fantastic creatures that live in the forest and that can be turned into toys.

No, let’s not give them ideas.

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