SAN ANTONIO — A young girl trotting through the woods, the delivery of a lit birthday cake, the embrace of a mother and her daughter—every one of the 72 minutes that makes up the perfectly constructed “Petite Maman” locates a wondrously sweet spot between formal mastery and soulful storytelling.
In other words, this is a Céline Sciamma film, but it’s the Céline Sciamma film that feels the most like a magic trick. (Three times I have watched it, and each viewing plays more beautifully than the last.) There might be no working filmmaker more confident than the French writer-director of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Girlhood” and “Tomboy” at feeling their way through the maze of life experience, whether its walls are constructed by gaps in identity, class or culture. The root of the issue in “Petite Maman” is generational in nature, yet “issue” already feels like too antagonistic a descriptor for a movie this tender, one made up largely of soft-spoken conversations and two young girls building a hut of sticks in a forest as pensive and magical as the Hundred Acre Wood.
The film opens at the close of a life. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) shuffles into the rooms of a senior care home, Claire Mathon’s elegant camera following at ground level as she says farewell to the residents inside each one. The last room’s bed is empty, the shelves bare, and a slightly younger woman – this is Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse) – sits and gazes out the window. Through the child’s perspective we notice the quiet, suspect the grief, stretch to make sense of things that probably aren’t destined to make sense.
“The last goodbye wasn’t good,” Nelly later laments, inside her mother’s childhood home where more belongings are being packed, where the flow of new memories have reached an inevitable shore. She’s speaking about the grandmother who has passed, although, this being Céline Sciamma, those words are never uttered. Instead it’s the pathos that’s there for us to grasp, and to reckon with. Sciamma’s sense of cinematic poetry hasn’t wavered yet, nor has it lost its luster. The result is a deeply moving tale tracking a mother and daughter’s paths back to each other.
“Petite Maman” is a movie of impossible grace and humility. More than a film that moves, it’s a film that practically floats, matching the pace of Nelly’s curiosity and worry. Braided throughout its details – the ruffling of a notebook’s pages, the fluttering shadows at night – is a weight of family history both long past and extremely recent that makes the small, tucked-away house most of the movie takes place in seem like the most important place on Earth. And if that’s the case, then surely Nelly running into another girl her age in the backwoods – a girl who could be her twin, a girl who also lives nearby, a girl whose name is the same as Nelly’s mother – is the most important meeting on Earth. And why shouldn’t it be? As far as these two pint-sized companions are concerned, befriending your mother years before she birthed you is no more a fantasy than opening a book and finding years-old writing still inside.
Despite featuring just eight credited actors and unfolding in half that number of locations, the depth of “Petite Maman’s” heart is staggering. It is about a child’s understanding, and the growth in her ability to understand. It is about the closing of great emotional distances within small rooms. It is about the mysteries of youthful memory. It is about remembering past lives, and living to remember. It is about escaping to imagination. It is about the pleasure of stirring cocoa islands in your bowl at the kitchen table before slurping them up.
And it does all this in its small runtime, accomplishing more than most movies do in the time it takes for us to even feel invested in their characters. It’s a mark of Sciamma’s efficiency as a storyteller, yes, but also of the universality that underscores every moment. “Petite Maman” is excellently written not because of witticisms or didactic truths; it is excellently written because it gently encourages the viewer to look inside themselves for the message it’s sharing. Nelly doesn’t need to verbalize the sadness etched on her face when she’s told early on that her mother left during the night; we were children once, and we recognize it. We recognize we wouldn’t have said anything, either.
There is an otherworldliness to Mathon’s cinematography that radiates honesty and equality, much in the same way she lent a sweeping sense of emotional scale to the lovely ghostliness of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” There are shots in “Petite Maman” that could be Polaroids hidden under letters and bills in the kitchen drawer, or paintings in your local art museum. This may read like a strange dichotomy in visual style, but watch the film and you’ll know what I mean. And you’ll know what I mean when I say this is a movie about emotional terrain we’ve all wandered along and wondered about at one point.
The beautiful irony is “Petite Maman” says what it is saying about life, about families, about connection without for one moment – for one frame – taking any of it for granted.
"Petite Maman" is now screening in San Antonio theaters. It's rated PG for some thematic elements and brief smoking. Runtime: 1 hour, 12 minutes.
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse Stéphane Varupenne
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
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