Petite Maman is a simple film that takes complex emotion and weeds out all the complications that come with growing up. It is subtle, quiet, and unhurried, but no less moving because of it—in fact, those qualities enhance the film because Sciamma knows that is how this story should be told.
The themes are filtered through the curious eyes of a child resulting in a kaleidoscopic narrative that transcends time and space and age. It’s a gentle and loving portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship but the message can be applied to all types of relationships—any human connection where the participants yearn to know more about the other person.
Note: Spoilers for Petite Maman are below.
Eight-year-old Nelly is with her parents packing up her mother Marion’s childhood home after the passing of her grandmother. The grief gets to be too much for Marion so she leaves without saying anything to Nelly. During her absence, Nelly explores the wooded area around the property and meets another girl her same age that looks very much like her…named Marion.
There is an immediate connection between them that goes beyond the ease children have in making friends. And this is where Sciamma’s delicate touch of subtlety brings things into sharp focus. Twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz play Nelly and the eight-year-old version of Marion. This creative storytelling device allows Nelly to get to know her mother on a level she would never have access to with the grown Marion (Nina Meurisse).
This kind of thing has been done before but never with the beautiful simplicity that Sciamma executes in Petite Maman. Marty McFly meets his parents as teenagers in Back to the Future, but I don’t think that conjured up many deep, interpersonal feelings for the audience. Nor should it because it’s an adventure movie. Sciamma takes that high-concept idea and simplifies it with her story, keeping that sense of adventure and adding pure childlike wonder.
“I came from the path behind you.”
The locations are magical and nearly every frame is a work of art. Marion’s childhood home and the woods around it feel like they exist in a vacuum in which this timey-wimey stuff seems possible. Seeing the house at two different stages of time as the story slowly reveals itself really resonates, almost becoming a character itself. There’s a great scene that kind of serves as an interlude where the girls row out to a pyramid in the middle of a lake. The cinematography is enchanting all around but especially here.
Claire Mathon is the director of photography, teaming with Sciamma for the second time since 2019’s highly-acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Both films have a distinct fine art quality to them. In Petite Maman, the vivid use of reds and blues is bold which breaks up the subtlety of everything else quite nicely. At one point, shifting shadows provide a kind of eerie effect.
Sciamma has solidified her place among esteemed writer-directors. The mastery of the craft and the artistry with which she weaves her unique tales makes her a bonafide auteur. It’s a bare-bones, stripped-down approach to storytelling. Less is more and the simple can be complex. Sciamma proves that with each artful outing whether it’s an 18th-century sapphic love story or a child longing to connect with her mother.