If Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire is about seizing on a possible missed opportunity and never looking back, Petite Maman is concerned with wondering of all the opportunities that are yet to come. Rooted in the universally familiar emotions of grief and childhood curiosity, Sciamma is able to craft a dual-sided coming of age tale both incredibly imaginative and heartwarming. The equivalent of a cinematic hug, Petite Maman is 72 minutes of deep emotion brought to life on the big screen. By the time it ends, you’re left wondering how a filmmaker could possibly achieve so much in so little time. There are many factors at play that could answer this quandary, but when you’re in the hands of a master, what is revealed should not come as a surprise.
For starters, there are the Sanz sisters, Joséphine and Gabrielle, who play Nelly and Marion respectively. Within seconds of being introduced to the two 8-year-olds who hand off debut performances of a literal lifetime, Sciamma is able to seemingly rid any notion of cinema and portray pure reality. It’s unclear whether these children were simply born to act, or if Sciamma was born to direct them specifically, or more plainly, if Sciamma just let the cameras roll and told them to be children. Whatever the explanation or process was, the final product is a deeply impressive one that allows the emotional core of the film to feel all the more impactful and realistic. From the adorable mannerisms to goofing off during aperitif time, Nelly is an utter joy to watch as she grapples with all that is unfolding before her. Sciamma is able to essentially use Nelly as her vessel for the camera lens, sometimes quite literally, while also creating a deeply complex and lovable main character. As she grapples with the permanence of death and moving forward in the wake of loss, Sciamma introduces Marion, who grapples with moving forward in the wake of infinite possibility and wonder.
Time is a funny thing as a child, especially when looking back as an adult. Sciamma is able to use plenty of visual tricks to elicit the rapid movement of time, but in reality, it’s not so different. The concept of permanence and perpetual movement through time obviously morphs over a lifetime, yet Petite Maman approaches it in a multitude of ways. As Nelly goes to sleep to make tomorrow arrive sooner, the lights shutting off instantly transport us to her next adventure in the woods. As we age, time feels as if it moves faster than ever before, but the same can be said looking back at childhood. In the blink of an eye, we are onto the next day, emptying out a childhood home, wondering what comes next. Sciamma uses time to ruminate on the infinite possibilities of life and death, through the lens and mindset of children. With youth comes utmost potential, and to see a film handle a topic so expansive in such a somber, heartfelt, and most importantly, mature way for children is deeply impressive and awe-inspiring. She doesn’t shy away from the fear that may come with these possibilities, but rather, addresses them as adults themselves. In her statement regarding the film, Sciamma made a point to note, “Children have heard the world rumbling. I feel that it is vital to include them, to offer them stories, to look at them, to collaborate with them”.
Sciamma calls Petite Maman “a collective, physical experience”. Childhood wonder, and curiosity in general, is an essential part of human existence. It allows us to learn, to experience, to get lost in another world even. Whether that world is fictional or real, with it comes lessons. Some are more direct than others, but those who are truly curious will thrive in life. Not necessarily because of any particular advantage, but because it allows for deeper critical thinking which is more crucial now than ever before. So for children, that constant sense of questioning the world should be encouraged and allowed to blossom. For the earlier we can grapple with concepts on finality and moving forward, the stronger we will be. Sciamma should be applauded for taking an idea so bold and crafting something so deeply innovative and full of childlike wonder. Petite Maman feels like an important film, if only because it may go on to inspire, quite literally, a whole generation of children to look deeper into those complex feelings and curiosities they may have; And the adults watching alongside them may learn a bit as well on the way. We are nothing without those around us, and Sciamma goes to simple lengths (or timelines) to prove it.
NEON will release PETITE MAMAN in theaters on April 22, 2022.