Céline Sciamma’s last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was one of the most widely acclaimed releases of 2020, a sumptuous historical drama, which had plenty to say about the creative process and also offered a heartrending tale of forbidden love. My one regret at the time was that the restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic meant that I could only view it on the small screen.
Petite Maman really couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. Shot during lockdown and using only a handful of actors, it relates its intimate story over just seventy-two minutes and yet, in its own muted way, it’s a magical experience, with a central premise that stays with me long after the credits have rolled.
After the death of her beloved grandmother, a little girl called Nelly (Josephine Sanz) accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the old woman’s house, somewhere in the French countryside, where they will spend time clearing out her belongings. Nelly’s parents don’t seem to be getting along too well and the rediscovery of her childhood belongings seems to make her mother melancholic. Left to her own devices, Nelly goes exploring the nearby woods, where she meets a girl her own age called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Marion is building a tree house and, almost without a word exchanged between them, Nelly starts to help her with the task.
It is apparent from the word go that something very strange is happening…
And it would be criminal to outline any more of the plot. Suffice to say that what transpires is an enchanting ‘what if’ story, and that Sciamma, who also wrote the script, offers us very little in the way of exposition and even less that might serve as explanation. She has the confidence to leave it up to the viewer to put the pieces together, which, because little clues have been expertly placed, is easy to do.
The two young actors are a joy to watch, their simple adventures delightful and, somehow, their performances hardly feel like ‘acting’ at all. Cinematographer Claire Mahon captures the events in a glowing, autumnal light that makes the incredible seem entirely possible. Watching this, I’m reminded of times in my own childhood, when a walk in the woods could take me to a place where my imagination would conjure the most wonderful adventures.
Petite Maman is simply enchanting and, given it’s brisk running time – a rare accomplishment in an era that sometimes seems incapable of creating any film shorter that two hours – it blows by like a wisp of gossamer: sweet, magical and beautifully understated.