AFI Fest 2021: Petite Maman
Expectations are always high for a well regarded auteur, but they were especially lofty for Celine Sciamma following her revelatory 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. From Water Lillies to Girlhood, the French director has always had a piercing vision, but Portrait brought her the largest audience and most fervent acclaim of her illustrious career. So how did she choose to follow it up? With Petite Maman, a 72 minute fable about a young girl meeting her mother as a child, of course.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a precocious 8 year old, reeling from the death of her beloved grandmother. While helping her parents clean out Grandma’s (Margo Abascal) house, Nelly ventures through the same woods her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), explored and tamed in her youth.
Those days are long passed for Marion, her grief over the loss of her mother intertwined with her own more general sorrows. A loving mother, but unable to maintain a brave face for her daughter, Marion decides to leave her childhood home and her family with it. Nelly’s a smart girl, but her mother’s absence weighs on her like it would for any young child.
The departure of her mother only furthers Nelly’s curiosity of her parents’ youth. Children rarely get a clear picture of the interior lives of the generations that came before them. In search of a closer bond to her lineage, Nelly ventures into the woods to find the makeshift hut her mother built into her own youth. What she finds instead is a young girl named Marion (Joséphine’s sister Gabrielle Sanz), constructing her own hut in the woods.
Reunited with Sciamma for their second consecutive collaboration, Claire Mathon’s cinematography is every bit as nuanced and breathtaking as her work on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Trading the aesthetic of forbidden longing for the whimsy of youthful curiosity, the pair find magic again illuminating a young girl’s desire to better understand her mother and late grandmother.
Nelly and her young mother are a delightful pair, fast friends and absolutely adorable. The two connect instantaneously and Nelly gets the gift of fully understanding her mother before she was blessed and burdened with motherhood. Their adventures building huts and cooking crepes are heartwarming and full of meaning, without ever being too heavy,
The whole of Petite Maman feels as slight as it’s runtime for most of the film. Delightfully breezy as it follows the two young protagonists, Sciamma lures you into this modern fable. Where the magic lies though is not in the time traveling dynamics, instead it’s in the way this film draws you into its characters and tees you up for a devastating close.
For an hour, Nelly’s adventures through her mother’s past and her own present in a sort of childlike whimsy. Sciamma’s film is light on it’s feet and not asking much of the audience emotionally. The magic lies in the switch, from a film about childhood whimsy into one about the lifelong, even generation spanning bonds between parents and their children.
Without any sort of earth shaking reveal or gratuitous twist, Petite Maman still sneaks up on you with it’s emotional conclusion. Sciamma takes a bold chance with a barely — if even — feature length follow up to her international breakout, her protagonist Nelly gains an appreciation for what her mother went through and viewers are hit over the head with a wallop of a finale.
What it all results in is something larger than the slim runtime. In nearly half the runtime of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma crafts something as gutturally affecting. What Petit Maman confirms, at the very least, is that Celine Sciamma is a master of emotive cinema, even that qualifier may be unnecessarily. Petite Maman is another masterpiece. 9/10