Petite Maman review: A deeply profound gem
Packed full of imagination10
Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz10
Katherine McLaughlin | On 18, Feb 2022
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Nina Meurisse
According to Celine’s magic book in Jacques Rivette’s sprawling reflection on cinema and celebration of female friendship, Celine and Julie Go Boating, “Autumn is a period of realisation.” In childhood, these moments of understanding are often twinned with dread or excitement – something French filmmaker Céline Sciamma elegantly translates through haunting visuals and gentle humour in this tender depiction of the mother-daughter relationship.
In Petite Maman, you can almost feel the crunch of leaves under your walking boots as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) searches for clarity in the rich orange-toned woods (shot enticingly by cinematographer Claire Mathon) beside her mother’s childhood home. After the death of her grandmother, Nelly is longing for a deeper connection with her own mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), who is in mourning. Just as suddenly as death can take away a loved one, another realm opens up where Nelly meets for daily adventures with Marion as a young girl (Gabrielle Sanz).
Sciamma plays with time in a similar manner to Rivette; she indicates a jump in reality with little explanation and a simple cut that allows her mother and daughter characters to interact and bond as children. Both films possess a similar beguiling and magical quality and use childhood objects like colourful storybooks as curious invitations to engage in a world of play and pretend. And yes, the girls actually do go boating in this film, albeit in a rubber dinghy!
Sciamma draws inspiration from Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki and body swap comedy Vice Versa to create a film that’s not only packed full of imagination but is also accessible to children (it runs at 72 minutes). Nelly travels between the modern day and the 1980s, walking in her mother’s footsteps while also standing beside her. The way Sciamma toys with memory through this compelling yet simple idea is deeply profound – what a lovely thing it would be to inhabit the childhood of your mum, and to experience her joys and fears just as she did.
The casting of twins – Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz – in the child mother and daughter roles creates an uncanny ambience, which is furthered heightened by skilful shadow work in both light and darkened bedrooms. These moments bring to mind the Val Lewton RKO-produced shadowy horrors, and at one point Marion confides in Nelly that she didn’t like it at nighttime when the shadows created what looked like a black panther in her bedroom.
Death is scary and the death of a loved one can alter your world forever. Petite Maman deals with grief and memory by waving a fond farewell to childhood innocence, the people you love and the person you once were with radiant charm.
This review was originally published during the 2021 London Film Festival.