Movies · Reviews

‘Petite Maman’ Teases Out Adorable Childhood Fantasy

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ leaves something to be desired. But the experience is still lovely.
Petite Maman
By  · Published on October 10th, 2021

In her first feature since 2019’s stunning Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French writer-director Céline Sciamma posits an equally simple, complicated, and delightful question: what if you could meet your mom when she was younger? As if that isn’t fun enough, she takes it a couple of steps further: what if you both were the same age? What if you became best friends? Against all odds — a cool 72 minutes and an even cooler premise — Petite Maman (translation: Little Mom) takes a while to get going. But once the stage has been set, it transforms into something so kind and warm, it becomes hard not to love.

The film follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a softspoken, matter-of-fact nine-year-old girl, in the sullen aftermath of her grandmother’s death from a condition that is genetically passed down. She rides with her parents out to her mom’s (Nina Meurisse) childhood home in the country to pack it up and say goodbye to the place one last time. It isn’t long before Nelly wanders off into the woods and meets another nine-year-old girl, Marion (Joséphine’s twin, Gabrielle Sanz), whom she quickly realizes is her mother.

Other signs point to Marion’s identity before we’re sure of it (the identical twins being identical, for example), but it isn’t until Marion brings Nelly back to her house that we fully understand who she is. Marion’s house is the same childhood home Nelly and her parents are cleaning out, but it somehow exists outside of the present moment, preserved in time, like Marion.

With Petite Maman, Sciamma isn’t concerned with what’s happening across space and time. There are no time portals, or cerebral elucidations, or cosmic consequences surrounding the innocent friendship between the two girls. It’s never sci-fi. That kind of freedom also allows Sciamma to bring back Nelly’s recently deceased grandmother as Marion’s younger, healthier mother, another layer of gratifying fantastical exploration.

Yet, it’s worth noting that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon are keen not to employ the regular visual trappings of magical realism. Where a phantasmagorical premise typically gives way to obvious visual cues — an incredibly shallow depth of field, kaleidoscopic color palettes, and images that overtly sparkle, shine, or glow — here it unfolds plainly, dry, direct French sensibilities fused with fairytale lore.

Mathon and Sciamma wield the setting of peak fall in the region of Brittany to create their own sense of magic, and it truly is all they need to communicate the mood. In nearly every frame of Petite Maman, there’s a nuanced play between reds, yellows, and greens in their warm, dazzling shades across the autumn spectrum. The color provides a mood, tone, and backdrop that feel like fantasy without resorting to heavy stylization or VFX-driven imagery. The woodsy terrain also does some heavy-lifting, light slicing through the trees to create a forested daydream all around them.

The problem with the film is that we don’t reach the meat of the story until we’re nearly halfway through. And the time left behind to exposition, which could’ve achieved the same emotional ends in less than ten minutes, ends up feeling like time lost to Nelly and Marion. Their every shared moment is so full of charm it could go on for five hours uninterrupted.

There’s a missed opportunity to better connect with Nelly in Sciamma’s attempt to balance the fantasy of Petite Maman with the realism of the opening sequences. Sciamma is right that there’s a need to connect us to the story before the magic happens, but perhaps she sticks too close to convention in her subdued approach to setting the story up. Nevertheless, the time spent with the achingly adorable Nelly and Marion is a breath of fresh fall air.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.