A year or two ago, I asked my mom whether she feels like her age, or if she feels younger. I told her that I still don’t feel like I’m an adult, that I feel like a teenager disguised as a person in their mid-twenties. I wanted to know if my mom had ever felt this feeling, and if she had, if it ever goes away—if people ever reach a point where they know that they’ve finally, officially stepped into adulthood and shed their adolescence. She admitted that sometimes she does feel like she ought to: Like a woman in her early sixties. But most of the time, in every way that isn’t physical, she still feels like a kid. In Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French director returns with a much smaller affair by comparison: A compact, 73-minute (yet nonetheless affecting) portrait of grief, parenthood and the constant dialogue between our past and present selves.
Following the death of her maternal grandmother, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) to her mother’s childhood home. By all accounts, little Nelly seems to get on well with her mother. During the journey from the nursing home, Nelly attentively feeds her grieving parent cheese puffs and apple juice from behind the driver’s seat, then slides her tiny arms around her mother’s neck in an embrace to comfort her as she steers the wheel. But grief is a concept largely foreign to a child wise beyond her years and eager to play pretend as an adult, yet still distant to the reality of death. In the wake of her grandmother’s passing, as her mother clears out her old family things from the house, Nelly laments with more annoyance than anything that she bid a farewell to her relative that wasn’t the right kind of goodbye. She would have given her a better goodbye if she had known it would be her grandmother’s last. “We can’t know,” her mother tells her, and the two of them fall asleep wrapped in each other’s arms.
But when Nelly awakes the next morning, her mother is gone. It’s a discovery less crushingly felt due to an implied absence that Nelly is familiar with. And her spacy yet well-meaning father can’t give Nelly a straight answer as to where her mother has up and left, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about it. The grieving process is something he’s acquainted with, but something he’s reluctant to impart upon a young kid. So, Nelly, an only child, goes off to play in the woods by herself to occupy her time during this confusing interlude. It’s there in the wilderness behind her mother’s old house that Nelly discovers a little girl about her height, about her same hair color and face shape, who lives in a home exactly like the one just beyond the path in the woods where Nelly came from. A little girl named Marion (unsurprisingly, Joséphine’s twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz) who’s building a branch fort in the woods; the same branch fort that Nelly’s mother had once made when she was around Nelly’s age.
Precocious and imaginative, it doesn’t take Nelly long to figure out what’s going on as she continues to join Marion in the forest each day to help her build her fort. But it’s similarly no surprise that, after some hesitance, Nelly eventually brings Marion home to introduce her to her father who can see Marion just as clearly as Nelly can. Marion is his wife, after all. Her existence is not treated as simply a product of Nelly’s young, overactive mind, and Petite Maman is explicit in portraying this manifestation of Marion’s young self as a coping mechanism for the loss of her mother. It’s an especially fortuitous situation for Nelly, a child who is eager to ask her parents questions about who they were before she existed. Suddenly, Nelly has her mother as a peer and equal, something that the rest of us will never get to experience as we spend our lives knowing only a fraction of our parents’ true selves.
Petite Maman is a stirring tearjerker; a meditation on mortality and on the small window of time we are gifted in which we can know just a compromised version of who our parents are. Deeply evocative and nearly bordering saccharine territory, the film is buoyed in no small part by the twin Sanz sisters in their remarkable acting debuts and colored vividly by cinematographer Claire Mathon in crisp, autumnal hues that make the film feel both out of time and eerily adjacent to death. This is further established in shots like one where Nelly sits on her bed as an orange glow of sunlight hangs above the crown of her head, reminiscent of a supernatural presence. There is also a particularity of childlike physicality Sciamma and company capture brilliantly, their camera eager to linger on every awkward little body movement expressed by Nelly and Marion to paint a picture of these children as full human beings. It ties into the film’s depiction of the throughline between childhood and adulthood—how there is not as much distance between who we were and who we are as we might think, how easy it can be to retreat into the safety of our past selves in order to protect us from the pain of the present.
With a gentle touch, Sciamma crafts a profound, easily digestible film that takes heavy themes and makes them bite-sized. She looks at the way we speak to one another, and to ourselves, at every age, and how these conversations are inevitably dulled in the schism between a child and their parent. Our parents only know one sliver of our own personhood just as time has robbed us of knowing our parents, their proximity to changing our diapers and teaching us to drive stunted by the lives we create as we become our own people, and as we grow to understand that our parents are people, too. Petite Maman is about this dialogue we create with our families that is just as meaningful, if often frustrating, amidst the fractures inherent to our relationship with them.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascal
Release Date: October 7, 2021 (NYFF)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.