de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Petite Maman, the stunning fifth film by French auteur Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Tomboy, Girlhood) finds her exploring childhood innocence once again as she combines fantasy elements without fantastical creatures, but instead examines the concept of time, memory, and other external and internal forces that arise from childhood uncertainty. Despite a narrower narrative scope and a short-running time of only 72 mins, Sciamma conjures up an involving world from the perspective of a young girl confined in an adult world where time doesn’t seem too fleeting.

It’s a visually rhapsodic film where we see a child’s perspective confined to the curiosities of grief, the loss of a parent, regret, and finding proper closure once a loved one is deceased. Sciamma’s approach here films deeper than your routine narrative about childhood innocence, it feels like a richly textured aura or a time capsule of a young psyche searching for answers. Sciamma yields subtly to the delicate, the abstract with literalism, while delivering a deeply moving yarn that is somewhat meandering and that should resonate strongly with art-house and international film aficionados.

Petite Maman Review | Movie - Empire

Also written by Sciamma, the original screenplay asserts itself as a singular vision even as it feels like a more modern version of a coming-of-age story merged with some magical realism that echoes the literary work of Rosalie K. Fry’s The Secret of Roan Inish. Perhaps some cinematic comparisons can be made to Chantal Akerman, as the elliptical style captures the passage of time where the relationships in the film take on new layers and meanings.

Both literal and metaphorical, Sciamma plays with the idea of how something magical should be taken at face value within a child’s imagination. The saga begins with the film’s protagonist, Nelly (Josephine Sanz), parting ways with the residents of an elderly home before arriving at the house of her recently deceased grandmother, to whom Nelly never had the opportunity to say her final goodbyes. Nelly is accompanied by disconnected parents that are credited as le pere Stéphane Varupenn and la mere Nina Meurisse, who end up cleaning out Nelly’s grandmother’s rooms, which are in a rural area of France surrounded mostly by trees and a green forest. Inside the homes lies a hidden party door, luminous decor, unique green wallpaper, and an enchanting spirit that holds nostalgia and treasured memories.

PETITE MAMAN - Film - European Film Awards

While Sciamma has crafted five memorable films, ranging from Tomboy (2012), which was about a preadolescent trying to find their gender, to her illuminating and highly involving Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), all deal with themes about finding closure and atonement with oneself by loving another. Sciamma explores this as well, once Nelly finds another young girl who is identical to her that she befriends named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz)—two young actors are sisters. They both build a tree fort together, form a strong bond, and Nelly shows Marion the areas of the house that reveal more magical doors and portals that allow them to share experiences and journeys together.

The innovative spirit of Petite Maman is that it isn’t some tiresome fantastical saga where children run off into an imaginative world to escape from the hardships of their reality. While those aspects are there, Marion ends up informing Nelly that she is her daughter, and we see the concept of time in the past and present intertwine in a very creative way. Instead of focusing on the plot of how or why it happened, or how they can navigate themselves out, the interplay between the two young women asks for information about themselves and their future. They form a bond and a mother-daughter connection in ways that Nelly and her mother cannot, and perhaps that could be the reason why La Mere is disconnected from Nelly’s own grandma. Together, they play games, hang out in the woods, row boats, share chocolate, and cook pancakes together.

Petite Maman' Review: Into the Woods - The New York Times

With all of these warm and inviting moments and scenes, the film feels magical and enchanting without ever having to use wizardry or magic. The film is more of a meditation on time and memory. And like memories, every memory has its fragments, and with this film, memories are met with reconciliation. What’s innovative about this film is how Sciamma uses memory and time with a non-linear narrative that has many devices for the young girls to find out more about each other, and what’s really important to them. We are seeing yearnings and emotions play out with abstractions and devices.

Sciamma utilized this aestheticism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire as well though with less feminist polemicizing. There is a dreamlike quality to the film that also feels personal. Both Marion and Nelly share their dreams, passions, and all the experiences they will not be able to share together in real time. The relationship between the two feels like a product of childhood imagination. The point Sciamma is going for is how enigmatic our memories and regrets feel, yet our longings and yearnings should never remain unshared with our closest loved ones.

Petite Maman de Céline Sciamma (2021) - Unifrance

The closing of the film perhaps feels a little slight, but the film accomplishes so much in its short running time, more so than many films that go over the 2-hour mark. Sciamma has made a deeply personal and touching film. A film that feels like a coming-of-age story about childhood and friendship ends up transcending itself into so much more contemplative and enigmatic. It really is a miracle of a film and a test of just how creative of a storyteller Sciamma is. Petite Maman is one of her best films to date; one that touches the heart and mind, and one that will almost certainly play extremely well on repeat viewings as time passes.