The feeling of gazing at one’s parents and imagining, or just generally trying to comprehend, that they were once your age going through something likely similar to you, in one way or another, feels about as timeless as the warm sun hitting your back on a walk. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) understands that, as she looks upon her mother (Nina Meurisse), as she processes the death of her own mom. It’s all said with just a gaze, the Céline Sciamma special; as Nelly wonders what it feels like to lose someone forever, and whether her mother ever sat and watched as her mother wrestled with her mother’s death. It all becomes a first-hand experience in a Sciamma film, as we melt our way into the intimacy of the screen. And Petite Maman continues such an experience, as Sciamma brings another story of a young girl on the precipice of some new self-understanding, as Nelly grows up and, as the title suggests, her mother grows smaller in this movie’s delicate but high-concept plot.
Soon after cleaning Nelly’s grandmother’s nursing home room, they arrive at grandma’s rustic country house in order to sort things out, but, by the morning, Nelly’s mom runs off, leaving her with her father (Stéphane Varupenne). But, later that afternoon, near the tree fort that her mom built as a child, Nelly finds an eight-year-girl who looks just like her, only with a different coat and a somewhat bristlier features. It’s strange that Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) shares the same name as Nelly’s mother, even stranger that she lives in a still-furnished version of Nelly’s grandmother’s house, and downright surreal that Nelly’s grandmother (Margot Abascal) is still living there, too. It’s a premise that seems equally ripe for an episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe it’s just Sciamma’s Back to the Future, with a more spectral tone.
The result is at once both the most ordinary and most outwardly enchanted thing that Sciamma has made so far, a wise and delicate wisp of a movie that recreates the same time-collapsing effect as the tree fort wormhole that allows Nelly and her mom to reach across the years and flatten the rift that’s always kept them apart. It’s a rift that’s measured the exact same length since Nelly was born, and won’t begin to close until her mom dies. Kids seem to understand that gap from an early age, while those who go on to become parents one day tend to discover that it looks distressingly similar from the other side. And so Petite Maman, though accessible to children, isn’t a fantasy story just for them. It belongs to anyone who’s ever felt a certain distance from the people they love most in the world; who knows that secrets aren’t just the things we keep from each other, but also the things we never find a way to share.
With a runtime of a slim seventy-two minutes, Petite Maman is a far cry from the kind of blank check that we’ve been conditioned to expect from someone hot off a popular favorite like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and viewers expecting to have the wind knocked out of them by the same kind of emotional gut-punch might be disappointed by a story that peaks with two cheerful kids making pancakes. But Sciamma has always been able to squeeze blood from a stone, and this film is crafted with such invisible resourcefulness and emotional poignancy that it never feels the least bit compromised. One early car shot, in which Nelly’s hands continually pop in and out of the frame as she feeds her mother Cheetos from the backseat, taps into the kind of non-moment that would be cut from most films into an unforgettable portrait of the space that separates even the most loving of parents and children — a space they can reach across from time to time but never share completely.
Sciamma’s characteristically understated approach elides all of the obvious dramatic beats. Nelly’s adventure isn’t prompted by some kind of blow-out fight with her mom, but rather a tender conversation in which the parent says “You always ask questions at bedtime,” and the child replies with the sort of hefty remark that kids don’t always realize they’re delivering: “That’s when I see you.” While there’s also plenty of carefree naturalness between the two girls, Petite Maman doesn’t resist the specter of death or deny the haunted nature of its ghostly premise; Sciamma maintains an enduring fascination with supernatural manifestations of regret, and there are details here that suggest material for a killer horror movie one day. But the dingy shadows that make up grandma’s near-empty home never fully harbor something threatening; any spirits who do appear bring nothing but reassurance and affection for the living. Past and present, death and life: All coexist in the little glowing moments of memory that make up this compact film, which is like a loving hand gently stroking your hair until you fall asleep. Told as a lovely strand of a movie, Petite Maman renders carefree playtime into a powerful conduit for one’s distant yet intimate acknowledgment of parental connection.
Petite Maman screened at the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival. It will be distributed by Neon in the U.S. sometime in 2022.