‘Petite Maman’ review: a magical fairytale with lingering resonance

French director Céline Sciamma has long been fascinated by time – and here it warps and bends with spellbinding results

In the opening scene of Petite Maman, we meet eight-year-old Nelly as she walks between the hushed rooms of a care home saying goodbye to its elderly residents one by one. There’s one important farewell missing, however and in a gradually emptying room, Nelly’s initially nameless parents – they’re simply credited as Mother and Father – pack up her grandmother’s belongings.

Examined within the context of the last year, Petite Maman’s opening scene has an eerie prescience, and Sciamma’s choice to tell a story through the eyes and imaginations of children feels significant, too. Taken out of school for months at a time and unable to see their friends during lockdowns, children have arguably been affected most by the seismic effects of the pandemic, and are sometimes sheltered by adults when it comes to explaining why. Here, meanwhile, their perspective is treated as valuable and important – we can all learn something from Nelly.

Next, the family bundle into the car, and head to an old house in the countryside, where they’re tasked with packing the remnants of a life up into boxes. On their bleary-eyed journey, Nelly gently feeds her mother (Nina Meurisse) snacks and looks after her in a subtle reversal of roles. Once they’ve arrived, she gently encourages her to share how she’s feeling, but instead her mum shuts down. Overnight she abruptly goes home and leaves the rest of the packing to Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne). “You never tell me about when you were little,” she complains to him in the kitchen, as he protests otherwise. “Just little stories,” she insists. It’s an early mirroring of the quiet magic that unfolds next.

Petite Maman
‘Petite Maman’ is out now in UK cinemas. CREDIT: MUBI

Similar to the chlorine-stained changing rooms of her debut Water Lillies and the wind-battered island floating at the core of Portrait of a Lady On Fire – Petite Maman feels set within a kind of miniature world, and brings a fairytale-like quality to its handling of time. Sciamma’s stories so often unfold over brief snatches of it that are constantly running out – the chief conflict of her films comes from the tussle between time marching on, and wanting to cling onto a perfect moment forever. And here, there’s an extra twist.

Though there are no whirring spaceships or hot-wired DeLoreans to be found here, time in Petite Maman bends and warps, and Nelly’s ability to travel through it is woven through the reality of the world Sciamma has created – with meticulous, microscopic attention to detail – in a small studio set. One day when Nelly’s playing in the woods, she meets a girl of the same age who looks strangely similar (the children are even played by real-life twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz) and as the pieces unspool, it becomes apparent that her new friend Marion is her mother as a child. With open-minded curiosity, Nelly never questions the dreamlike world she’s entered. Now they’re equals, Marion is able to confide her true fears and feelings in her child, without trying to protect her against the harsh realities that life can throw up.

Though Céline Sciamma wrote the opening moments of this film a fortnight before her home city of Paris went into lockdown, Petite Maman now hangs heavy with a collective significance. Ultimately, it pushed the French writer and director to press on with making Petite Maman amid strict filming restrictions, and just a year on from her stunning historical drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

As Sciamma so eloquently put it, speaking to NME ahead of its release: “Do we wait for the big festivals to put us on their red carpets, or do we rush in because cinema is a social responsibility?” And getting lost in the modest world she’s created with the help of a small, talented cast, you can’t help but conclude she made the right call.

Details

  • Director: Céline Sciamma
  • Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
  • Release date: November 19
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