Two years ago, even during the height of Parasite-mania, there was one film that stole the entirety of Film Fest 919 for me: that being Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire by a country mile. Presenting truly one of the finest romance films of the 21st century so far, Sciamma’s grasp on the power of sensuality over sexuality made it a pivotal queer film that simultaneously spoke to a very distinct experience, while also winning the hearts of all audience members with its universally touching story at its core. The world was Sciamma’s for the taking, and one could argue for Sciamma’s upgrading to the bigger and brighter lights of Hollywood, but like a true auteur who knows what they want, Sciamma is following up the grandeur of Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an even quieter, even smaller fantasy drama about the imagination of children in the midst of the French countryside. Petite Maman won’t bowl you over in the same manner as her previous film, but Sciamma’s vision as a director is as present as ever.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl grieving the loss of her beloved grandmother. Traveling to her grandmother’s countryside home to clear out her possessions with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne), Nelly sets off into the lush forest behind her grandmother’s home to find her mother’s childhood hut built in the midst of the thick woods. During her journey, she meets and befriends fellow child, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and soon discovers her spiritual connection to her is closer than she could’ve ever imagined.
There’s no doubt that Petite Maman feels like a much slighter effort in Sciamma’s canon than what we might’ve expected as a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire move for the director, but there’s also no doubt that there is an earnest softness to the film’s storytelling that almost automatically creates a sort of grounded fantastical wonder that this film requires. This isn’t a fantasy film in the blockbuster sense of the word, but rather an intimate, storybook-like film that somehow can feel more fantastical than any amount of visual effects could achieve. It’s that childlike wonder of playing make-believe with your friends during the long days of summer vacation, and that’s not an easily replicable thing in film.
Petite Maman is a film with an incredibly light touch on topics of death, grief, mental illness, etc. resulting in it never feeling bogged down by any drab despair. There are no tears to be found in Petite Maman that aren’t sparked from the origin of joy, and even those more somber moments are very nicely paired with moments of levity to break up the heavier ones. This is particularly important in creating a film that both adult fans of Sciamma’s filmography, as well as children with no knowledge of it, can enjoy in equal degrees.
This is helped all the more by the film’s brisk 72-minute runtime that wastes no second of the audience’s investment (unlike most films). I never felt like Petite Maman didn’t have enough to say with its short runtime, but rather the opposite, with a very high “message-to-minute” ratio that never felt rushed or ill-paced. Sciamma, with the help of the wonderful editing from Julien Lacharay, paces the film to a refreshingly efficient length.
And even more so, Petite Maman is simply a pleasure to look at, thanks to stunning cinematography from frequent Sciamma collaborator Clare Mathon (who also recently did even more excellent work on Pablo Larraín’s Spencer), capturing the lush, vibrant colors of the fall foliage, as well as the soft, cozy interiors that await Nelly and Marion when they return from the outside cold. It’s fabulously playful, but never at the expense of the film’s craftsmanship at the center of it all.
Still, for as much praise I can throw at the film’s objective excellence, there was something that kept Petite Maman from feeling like the powerhouse I thought it could be. There’s nothing inherently wrong about anything here, but there’s also a missing bit of that truly euphoric heartbreak that is normally explored in Sciamma’s work. Perhaps the film’s purity sometimes stands in its own way of creating any major stakes when everything is so simply put on screen, leaving not as much room for interpretation that has made some of Sciamma’s other films so much more emotionally resonant. Petite Maman is plainly straightforward, and while I think that can benefit the film’s wider audience appeal, it does sacrifice just a bit in the way of the film’s overall staying power.
But even with that, there is something so inherently pure about the universal story Petite Maman tells, detailing the needs and fears of two children as they navigate their first experiences with loss and grief. It uses the natural outside world as a playground for a fantasy world that often feels more tangible than many of the biggest budget fantasy worlds created by a group of executives in a studio boardroom. Even when the film feels incredibly slight, there is something to be found in a work that views our world as teeming with such wonder and imagination, no CGI needed.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.