Toronto Review: Petite Maman
Two years after the masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns with a film that in many ways feels slight by comparison, from the runtime — at a mere 72 minutes, Petite Maman is just over half the length of Portrait — to the subject matter: two children playing in the woods for a few days can seem trivial when considering the forbidden period love affair of Sciamma’s previous film.
But I’m of course being a little disingenuous, as discerning (and even not-so-discerning) film lovers will understand. Scope is merely a tool in the kit of a great filmmaker and much of the magic of Petite Maman comes precisely from how stripped down it is: a small miracle of efficient storytelling that nonetheless is likely to move its audience to tears by the end.
The setup is simple: eight (or so)-year-old Nelly’s grandmother has just passed, and Nelly and her parents need to spend a few days cleaning out her grandma’s house. Nelly’s mother Marion seems understandably — though not excruciatingly — distressed at the prospect of being surrounded by the memories of her recently deceased mother, and decides to leave. Not so coincidentally, Nelly soon runs into another girl — about her age and similar in appearance — in the woods by the house and strikes up a close friendship over the course of a few days.
Normally I would caution that to say more would be to ruin the pleasures of the story, but there’s really not much more to lay out and not much more that could take away from the melancholy sweetness at the film’s core. Petite Maman utilizes the central question explored comedically in the likes of Back to the Future (what if you met your parents when they were your age), but by establishing the mother-daughter relationship as one between two very precocious eight-year-olds, Sciamma creates an inherent innocence that leads to universality.
That’s not to say the film isn’t funny: at times it’s as charmingly sidesplitting as anything else I’ve seen this year (namely in a wonderful sequence that delightfully understands how children mimic adults in their make-believe), in large part thanks to the work of twin sisters Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz (as Nelly and Marion, respectively), whose delicately nuanced performances belie their youth. But Petite Maman’s power is ultimately born out of its keen insight into the nature of grief and the understanding that children are far more aware of and affected by their parents’ emotions than they may let on.
With the help of cinematographer Claire Mathon, who expertly manages the tricky task of shooting from a child’s perspective without resorting to gimmickry, Sciamma once again reveals her impressive ability to reach emotional depths through stylish naturalism — and in the process reminds us that in the right hands, even the smallest story can sweep us away.