Petite Maman


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Petite Maman
"The autumn setting fits it perfectly, because although this is the change of the year as things die back for winter, it is also blazing with colour and hopefulness." | Photo: Neon

French director Celine Sciamma has always had a keen eye for the viewpoint of children, in work including her own film Tomboy and her contributory writing for the likes of animation My Life As A Courgette. She has a sensibility for the fluidity of childhood emotions and an awareness of the flexibility of belief at an age where what adults would describe as “magical” and the lesser magic moments of the everyday are accepted equally willingly.

All of this is back in evidence here in this modern fairy story that will take its protagonist and us on an unexpected journey through time, even though we might not realise it at first. The writer/director gently explores the anxieties experienced by young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) after the death of her grandmother along with the connections between parent and child. At her gran's house to clear out the furniture, her mum Marion (Nina Meurisse) becomes overwhelmed by grief, leaving Nelly there with her dad (Stéphane Varupenne), in a role every bit as finely observed as the women's). Out in the woods, Nelly runs into another little girl, who looks an awful lot like her and who is also called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, the twin sister of actress Joséphine) and a friendship blossoms that sees Nelly discover another, notably different version of her grandma's house.

All good fairy tales and bedtime stories are meant to be told and retold, an attribute that also holds true for Sciamma’s film. I could – though I won’t – tell you every single thing that happens in her movie and I don’t think it would damage the experience of watching it because it’s the ‘feel’ of the thing in the moment that is so important, from the puff of flour as children make pancakes to the splash of an oar hitting the water on a mini adventure or the scent of a walking stick redolent with the memories of a thousand cuddles. As it is being released in the same week, it's almost impossible not to notice the contrast with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which comes with pre-viewing instructions from Jason Reitman not to 'spoil' the film for others - he wants you to keep everything to yourself, while Sciamma's radically different approach is an invitation to share.

Although there is a sense of nostalgia about Petite Maman it doesn't shy away from difficult emotions, offering an exploration of grief, both as an unencountered experience and an old acquaintance, that also touches on the loneliness of both children and adults but which has deep understanding flowing through its veins. The autumn setting fits it perfectly, because although this is the change of the year as things die back for winter, it is also blazing with colour and hopefulness. This is a small film about big emotions but it's also highly detailed, whether it's Nelly's dad securing her help to shave off his beard, the girls running in the rain or Nelly nibbling cheese puffs in the back of a car like a rabbit, then reaching around the head rest to offer her mum in the front seat a sip of her juice box. Sciamma’s film opens its arms wide and invites audiences of any age to step in for a hug.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2021
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Something magical happens to a young girl after the death of her grandma.
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Director: Céline Sciamma

Writer: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal,

Year: 2021

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: France

Streaming on: MUBI

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