Runtime: 70 minutes
Director/Writer: Celine Sciamma
Actors: Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Margot Abascal, Nina Meurisse, Stephane Varupenne
By Joan Amenn
One of the hardest lessons a child can learn is the loss of a grandparent. Celine Sciamma, whose “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) enraptured viewers two years ago, returns with an intimate and personal meditation on the cyclical nature of life.
Little Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother and accompanies her devastated mother (Nina Meurisse) to her childhood home to clean it out. The flotsam and jetsam of childhood drawings and lesson books are still lingering in a bedroom stuck in time. Time and continuity of life are the themes of “Petite Maman” but the film itself is (blessedly) brief.
In the forest behind grandma’s house that was a haven for her mother and where she plays, Nelly meets a new friend, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Uncannily identical to Nelly, Marion becomes inseparable from her as the two share confidences about their lives. Cinematographer Claire Mathon frames each shot like a Maurice Sendak picture book come to life and the most endearing scenes are of the two girls building a fort in the woods.
This magical realism comes to a screeching halt when the adults in the girls’ lives enter the narrative. Nelly’s father (Stephane Varupenne) and Marion’s mother (Margot Abascal) seem to be oblivious to the fact that the girls might pass for twins and don’t even venture to question where the other’s parents are. This lack of awareness takes the viewer out of the story and becomes a distraction from an otherwise touching allegory for the power of memory as a comfort in grief. Nina Meurisse as Nelly’s mother mysteriously disappears halfway through the story and although it is hinted that this is due to Nelly befriending a younger version of her, the time twist is not quite as convincing as it should be.
The performances of the sisters Sanz are quite charming but can be a little wooden in some scenes. The adults, especially Nelly’s mother, are all quietly grieving a loss of some kind, whether it is the loss of a parent, potential loss of a marriage or the looming loss of a child’s innocence as they face the trauma of major surgery. How each deal with this in relation to the girls could have been more strongly delineated in the script but it is still a moving story.
“Petite Maman” is not as powerfully heartbreaking as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” but it is still a small treasure in how it talks about the enduring strength of love spanning generations. Worth a watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon in fall when the leaves just start to change color.