“Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man,” proposed Aristotle, to which fiercely feminist French director Céline Sciamma might add, “Give me a woman, and I will show you the free, unbroken spirit she still was at age 8.”
Sciamma, who went from being a queer cult favorite (for such bracingly free indies as “Tomboy” and “Water Lilies”) to an internationally respected auteur with 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” follows up that barrier-breaking achievement with the slight but hardly insignificant “Petite Maman.” Made during fall 2020 while the pandemic still severely limited film production, this 72-minute sketch looks at the connection between an 8-year-old girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), through a simple leap of imagination — one that necessitates a basic spoiler to meaningfully discuss, so be warned if you’d rather save that surprise for the screen.
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Nelly is a bright and empathic child whom Sciamma first introduces in the retirement home where her grandmother had lived until quite recently (that riskiest of locations, from a COVID point of view). The girl goes from room to room saying goodbye to the elderly residents, ending in the nearly empty one that seems most familiar to her. There Nelly’s mother is also saying goodbye, as Sciamma subtly — but not so discreetly that audiences might not catch it — conveys the change in this young family’s life. How will they adjust to a world without Grandma? What individual healing must each of them do to move forward?
Sciamma has worked as often as a screenwriter on others’ films (including collaborations with André Téchiné and Jacques Audiard) as her own, specializing in lively portraits of young people, if not necessarily on fire, then at least smoldering with the urgent uncertainty of identities still in formation. As if by instinct, she shoots these stories at the eye level of her protagonists, reminding audiences how it feels to be 8, or 10, or a courgette.
More importantly, she banishes the intellectual noise of adulthood from her movies, prioritizing sensation and the emotional intuition by which we steer as kids. In “Girlhood,” grown-ups hardly seem to exist: There, the world belongs to those young women. But in “Petite Maman,” Nelly lives at the mercy of others’ schedules — namely, her parents’ — which produces an almost painful impatience at times. “No,” Nelly says at one point, declining an offer by her father (Stéphane Varupenne) for a bedtime story, “I want to sleep to get to tomorrow.”
She has discovered a playmate in the woods behind Marion’s childhood home. While Mom and Dad empty out the rooms where Marion spent much of her life, Nelly amuses herself. She’s perfectly self-reliant, as Sciamma shows early on, but — here’s the twist — in searching for the fort her mother built when Marion was her age, Nelly discovers 8-year-old Marion (played by Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle) in the process of constructing it. What a splendid idea: Who hasn’t wondered what our parents were like when they were kids?
Sciamma gives Nelly the chance to find out, and whether this fleeting friendship (which lasts only as long as her parents are packing up Grandma’s house) somehow mystically occurs or exists only in Nelly’s head, the takeaway is the same. It’s an extension of Nelly’s natural desire to understand her mother. But it’s also a chance to work out certain things she can’t quite say to adult Marion, and to investigate where her mother’s melancholy may have originated — all of which are the over-thought interpretations of an adult viewer. Wonderfully intuitive, “Petite Maman” will surely play quite differently to a young person, and Sciamma has made a film that children can also appreciate on their own level, à la Joan G. Robinson’s ghost story “When Marnie Was There.”
Sciamma’s tone is playful without being twee. No one would confuse this for a Michel Gondry movie. Still, there are touches of magical realism throughout, as when Nelly and petite Marion take a boat out to a floating concrete pyramid (one of the attractions at the leisure park outside Cergy-Pontoise). By casting sisters as the two characters, Sciamma benefits from the bond that already exists between these girls, which reads here as a kind of instant complicity. Just watch how they crack each other up during the messy crepe-making scene.
Normally, a movie must rely on time travel or some other supernatural device to bring characters of separate generations together at the same age (as in “Back to the Future,” when Marty McFly meets his parents in high school). But Sciamma doesn’t trouble herself to explain how this voodoo works, focusing instead on the opportunity it presents: In real life, mothers and daughters seldom overcome the power disparity the age difference creates, whereas Nelly and her “petite maman” (or “little mom”) can treat each other as peers.
The two girls take turns inviting one another back to their respective houses — which are the same home, but in distinct time periods, with tiny details (like furniture and wallpaper) adjusted between them. Audiences ought to sense that Sciamma has asked them to participate in a very personal exercise, but one that’s open-ended enough for them to project themselves. In their children, parents often see reflections of the kids they once were. But daughters can’t access those same memories without a little magic. And that’s just what “Petite Maman” delivers: the spell that makes such a reunion possible, if only in our imaginations.
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