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TIFF Review: “Petite Maman” Is Pure Magic

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 14th, 2021

Film poster: “Petite Maman”

Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.

In Petite Maman, French director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) crafts a fable that is as lovely as it is powerful. To all who have ever wondered what their parents were like when young, the film offers an answer simultaneously self-evident and revelatory: they were like us, but different. And so begins an adventure that fills the soul with joy even as it practices remarkable emotional restraint. There is no cloying cinematic sentiment here—no swelling music to tell us how to feel—just raw feeling in all its eloquent perfection.

As the movie begins, 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother. Before bringing us that sad news. Sciamma first starts with the love and affection that the still-living residents of the nursing home feel for the girl, and she for them. Nelly is a remarkable child, considerate to others and imbued with a sharp, inquisitive intelligence that endears her to everyone she meets, including her parents. Those two are now tasked with cleaning up the deceased woman’s house, even as Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse, Camille) finds the experience a heavy one, given that it’s where she grew up. She needs time to grieve the loss of her own mother, and so departs, leaving her husband (Stéphane Varupenne, Godard Mon Amour) behind to finish packing and mind Nelly. The latter might be sad to see mom go, but uses the opportunity to explore the woods.

l-r: Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in PETITE MAMAN ©Neon

There, she makes a new friend, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl of exactly her age who could be her twin (which, in real life, she is). Together, they play and build a fort, then go back to Marion’s house, which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Nelly’s late grandmother. There’s a mystery that underlies the narrative, but the how and the why of everything is less important than the spiritual bond that forms between the children. Across time and space, they are linked, and from their relationship the girls deepen their understanding of life and death. With deft, masterful strokes, Sciamma paints her picture with the profound colors of genuine feeling. It is inspiring and incredibly moving to behold.

Though there are supernatural forces at work, what makes the story work is the gentle naturalism of the affair. The performances of all involved, especially of the girls, feel like regular behavior, rather than acting, the camera never intrusive in its almost casual observation of this ordinary, beautiful world. Imagine a fairy tale shot like a documentary, and you’ll have a sense of the appeal. No matter how one describes it, however, Petite Maman is pure magic.

l-r: Stéphane Varupenne and Joséphine Sanz in PETITE MAMAN ©Neon
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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