petite maman celine schiamma

Petite Maman captures the longing and mysteriousness of childhood

“The movie supposes what we all know but wish to forget: that being a child does not free you from violence, pain or grief, just as being a parent doesn’t imbue you with magical powers that exempt you from suffering and depression.”

With her latest film Petite Maman, French filmmaker ​​Céline Sciamma returns to the realm of childhood. After her grandmother’s death, eight-year-old Nelly returns to the beloved home to help her parents clear out the space. Tensions are high, and one day, Nelly’s mother abruptly leaves. That day, while playing in the woods, Nelly meets a girl her age —Marion — building a treehouse. 

Running at just over 70 minutes, Petite Maman is deceptively simple. It’s a movie that captures the longing and mysteriousness of childhood while also exploring the complex relationships we have with our parents from a more adult point of view. As it quickly becomes clear that the little girl in the woods is a younger version of Nelly’s mother, in a temporal shifting fantasy, we explore that childhood moment when we realize our parents have their own lives and histories. 

The movie has a bit of a slow burn. The weight of grief imposes a cold pace as characters say little and glance past each other. While centred on a child’s perspective, the film captures the drowning feeling of being an adult thrust into childhood feelings. As Nelly’s mother (as an adult) confronts the loss of her mother, a rupture takes place as she can’t hold together her little family anymore. The weight of adult responsibilities becomes too overwhelming, and she needs her escape. 

Despite the prominent fantastical elements that occasionally made me think of a subdued Jeunet, the film’s naturalism is its greatest asset. The young actors, in particular, bring such intense light to the movie. Straightforward scenes, where they’re just eating or playing, resonate mostly in silence — the intensity of feeling and the beauty of childhood resonate even through the darkness. The two central performances are played by fraternal twin sisters, lending the film an even more intimate quality that might not have worked quite as effectively if the girls were not sisters.

Shot by Claire Mathon, who also did the cinematography for Sciamma’s previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the movie captures beautiful autumnal tones. Dominated by reds and browns, it captures the transitional notes of fall. The encroaching darkness feels overwhelming, but the warm light similarly evokes a deep sense of transformation. Aside from Portrait, Mathon has also shot some of the most beautiful movies in world cinema in recent years, including Spencer, Atlantics and Stranger by the Lake. Her preference for natural light and grainy textures intensifies the emotional quality of her films. In stark contrast to the dominant filmmaking style that favours sleek smoothness, she shoots movies that seem almost alive — the textural quality mimicking the strokes of a painter’s brush. 

At its heart, Petite Maman makes you yearn for filmmaking that doesn’t impose itself. Sciamma’s filmmaking uses precisely the time needed to explore this universe, and while it has some heavy themes, it also adopts the rhythms and length appropriate for children. It quickly joins the ranks of movies like The Spirit of the Beehive and uses fairy-tale elements and naturalistic film styles to explore challenging questions and events in childhood. The movie supposes what we all know but wish to forget: that being a child does not free you from violence, pain or grief, just as being a parent doesn’t imbue you with magical powers that exempt you from suffering and depression. 

While melancholic, Petite Maman transcends darkness. In many ways, it’s a movie about reconciliation and understanding that doesn’t approach growing up as a nightmare but rather a beautiful series of discoveries. The subdued nature of the film subverts all sentimentality, but that gentle approach means that the intensity of the film’s emotions creeps up on you. You’ll likely be weeping by the film’s end if you’re anything like me. 

Petite Maman, directed by Céline Sciamma

Petite Maman is playing in Montreal theatres now.

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