After her recent dazzling foray into historical drama, with the magnificent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns to the theme of childhood, which she last dealt with in Tomboy. However, to say that she returns to the present with Petite Maman would be misleading. And before you read any further, be warned that this is a film almost impossible to write about without a few spoilers.
The film begins with an end – the end of a life – and the first words we hear repeated are ‘Au revoir’ as our 8-year-old heroine Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) goes from room to room in an old people’s home to salute the inhabitants one last time. Nelly is with her parents, who are packing up her dead maternal grandmother’s belongings. Then it’s off to granny’s actual home to empty that out and then depart. There is a charming scene in the car as Nelly feeds her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), saying: ‘Aperitif time?’ Their relationship is warm,with Nelly providing sustenance and emotional support to her grieving mother.
At grandma’s house, Nelly’s sympathetic dad (Stéphane Varupenne) shifts an old dresser only to find that the old wallpaper is left intact behind it. That dazzling green 70s wallpaper is mirrored in the heightened greens of the countryside that Nelly goes off to play in. It is in the woods where her mother played as a child that Nelly meets another 8-year-old girl, Marion, who looks uncannily like her (in fact Marion is played by Joséphine’s twin sister Gabrielle). Is she a ghost? Nelly’s mother? A figment of her imagination? When thunder rolls and the rain comes down, the two run to Marion’s house and it is here that Nelly – and the audience – realise just who Marion actually is, for the house is a carbon copy of Nelly’s grandmother’s home, only that the garish wallpaper that was hiding behind the dresser is plastered all over the kitchen. Nelly has time travelled and has just entered her mother’s childhood world.
Nelly has entered Marion’s life at another pivotal moment. Marion is about to have an operation to correct a bone disorder that has left her mother crippled and in constant need of the walking stick we see Nelly ‘inherit’ after her grandmother’s death. Just as Nelly offers Marion succour when she is a grieving adult, so she offers friendship when she is a scared child.
There is so much to love in this film, from the wonderful Nelly to her delightful dad – who inadvertently hits on Nelly’s adventures when he bids her goodnight with a ‘Let’s set teleporting to tomorrow’. The two girls interrogate their lives and both their futures, each offering the other support, but there are plenty of hilarious scenes of simple childish pleasures such as pancake making and soup supping. Their joy in each other and their easy acceptance of their time-warped situation captures what it is to be a child.
In just 72 minutes, Sciamma manages to pack in so much about grieving, growing, solitude, childhood, relationships and love. Petite Maman is like that childhood classic character, Mary Poppins, in that it is practically perfect. And once again, Céline Sciamma shows us that she is one of the greatest living directors of our time.