Written by Taylor Baker
Petite Maman will historically be known as the film that Celine Sciamma followed up her intimate, awarding winning and otherworldly Portrait of a Lady on Fire with. Perhaps unfairly, as her predecessor to that title, Girlhood bears none of the brunt of the comparison that Petite Maman must contend with. Petite Maman like Portrait feels like an enchantment. A storied fable comes to bright life in front of us, played so straight that it’s easy to think you’re the one getting things confused. Why is Nelly’s mother gone? And at what point exactly did this child, Marion enter and why does she seem so much like Nelly’s mother?
Petite Maman sets out with a family reeling from the loss of a matriarch. Not just a mother, or a mother in law, but a grandmother. It’s Nelly’s (played by newcomer Josephine Sanz) first exposure to the face of death. And it leaves an indelible mark on her. Sciamma is interested in and successful at expressing the longing for understanding of a child. The yearn for connection, to know undoubtedly what is true. Because a parent’s role after all is to protect a child from some of the harshness they’ll come to find in life. This protection indelibly becomes apparent to all youth as they age further and wonder about that boundary of distinction offered by a parents protection from reality.
At one point Nelly directly asks her father, aptly named le pere what he was like as a boy. Who he was, what scared him. It’s a long look back at identity from his perspective, but it’s her beginning to formulate the identities and lives of others around her simultaneously. To experience a child going through this step in person is something magical itself, and Sciamma magnifies just the right parts of that to bring it to life without losing any of the intimacy of such a monumental shift in growth to the screen. One can’t separate this maturity with the massive longing and loss of her grandmother, whose cane she procured before leaving the hospital. Part token of her grandmother, part totem to her. It, like so many choices in the film, feels real, relentlessly and intimately so.
Similar to Christian Petzold’s Undine from 2020 or Murakami’s magical realism behemoth Killing Commendatore that resembles a sculpture more than a book, you’re unsure exactly where the boundaries of this fable are. How is it that her mother is a little girl? At one point Marion (Nelly’s mother) asks, how she got there after Nelly reveals that she is her daughter. Her reply, “I come from the path behind you.” rings with a delicious metaphorical completeness. At once indisputable and incomprehensible. How else could she have come? How else indeed.
Petite Maman Trailer