Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Petite Maman 2022 begins with Sciamma’s signature symmetry. The title appears in large letters above a portrait of a woman, framed in the center of an open window, turned outwards, plain but with a hint of remorse in her almost lifeless posture. She is the mother of eight-year-old Nelly and they are in a care facility for the elderly. Nelly’s grandmother passed away and the mother-daughter pair is cleaning and clearing out her room. They load some things in the car and go to the mother’s childhood home, another abode that is waiting for a dissolution. Or is it a dig?
A beautiful two-minute sequence follows in which Nelly opens some sandwiches, eats them, and feeds them to her mother, who is driving. We only see Nelly’s hands from her backseat and after a couple of drinks she passes a drink and makes sure her mom catches the end of the straw. Soon the penny drops, and we learn from Nelly’s innocent questions that her mother’s presence hardly registers for her, only meeting at bedtime. She asks a lot of questions and they discuss each other’s childhood scares. Nelly is promised that the next day she can go see her mother’s childhood tree house. Nelly wakes up in the morning to find her mother missing from her and only her father keeping her company. She had wanted to leave before Nelly got up. She wanted an escape.
Nelly’s father gives her something to play with in the woods, and Nelly’s retort is scathing, even if she speaks with the casual nonchalance of someone who has made peace with her loneliness: “A game you play alone?! Perfect!” What follows is a distillation of pain through conversation and a tender, healthy friendship.
As she searches for her mother’s tree house, she finds a girl, about her age, dragging a thin branch with all her little strength. The girl, Marion [Gabrielle Sanz], asks for help and, together with Nelly, collects autumn debris to build a tree house. Rain batters the landscape and the two girls run to Marion’s house, the two interacting, in complete silence, as if they’ve known each other for a long time beyond their collective years on the planet. The scene is reminiscent of the dressing room scenes in Sciamma’s first feature Water Lilies, where Marie meets Floriane for the first time. Marion hands Nelly the towel; they swap her sodden jackets for Marion’s dry ones, and Nelly is stunned by how close she feels to her new friend in familiar surroundings.
Through Nelly and Marion’s short but fruitful friendship, Sciamma hopes we interrogate the missing individual in this universe, and Nelly’s universe, the one whose absence confuses her: her mother. The film has been called Sciamma’s “lesser work”, partly because of its one-line plot and partly because of the mistake of comparing it to the scale of something like Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Petite Maman balances several things: the magical realism of Nelly and Marion’s friendship, how Marion takes Nelly to her house, which is a mirror image of her grandmother’s, how this relationship helps Nelly get closer to her mother, a mother barely knew, and to deal with it. the pain of losing a loved one. Nelly reconciles with her present and her mother understands her past and her future. The film twists the temporal realities of two children and one adult, making the children behave like adults and the adults like children. Nelly asks her father what she is afraid of. Initially, he doesn’t have an answer or rather isn’t ready to give you the answer. He says that her father scared him the most and Nelly wonders aloud how come she doesn’t know anything about her parents’ childhood, and they only tell her the little things. After Marion, she doesn’t feel so small anymore.
This “lesser opus” is almost as complex as Sciamma’s Girlhood trilogy, which deals with gender fluidity and the coming of age of young women. Here too, it is Nelly who must start behaving like an adult too soon. Sciamma puts loaded words in the mouths of these children, and yet there is not a note out of place in his way of playing with time, almost setting up a dreamland of memories, a theme park to deal with loss where two children of Eight years old, the old men recover the time that will be lost in the future, the time that was metamorphosed into remorse inside Nelly’s mother.
Watch Petite Maman 2022 Official Trailer: