Petite Maman – movie review

Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is back with a breathtakingly beautiful film about childhood, loss and memory. Petite Maman (which translates to Little Mummy) focuses on an eight-year-old girl’s relationship with her mother.

Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother. She and her mum Marion (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphanie Varupenne) travel to the house where Marion grew up to clean it out. Nelly has a close relationship with her mother. Both are, not surprisingly, sad. Nelly is inquisitive. Marion talks to Nelly about what she saw at the bottom of her bed when she was a child. Nelly later asks her father about his childhood fears. She is keen to do just as her mother did by creating a “hut” in the woods. Then Marion leaves, with Nelly left alone with her dad.

While exploring the woods, Nelly meets a girl who looks remarkably like her. Her name, like her mother’s, is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz – Josephine’s identical twin sister) and she is the same age as Nelly. The pair drags a branch to the clearing where Marion has already begun to build a tepee out of branches and sticks. They quickly become firm friends. Their residences look identical, but in Marion’s case, she is at home with her mother (Margot Abascal), who walks with the aid of a cane. To avoid the fate of her mother, Marion is facing an operation in just three days’ time. While she admits she is scared, she and Nelly play games, act out and spend as much time together as they can.

Incredibly photogenic, Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz are also remarkably talented young actors.  Their “performances” are just so natural and seemingly effortless. They shine. They take their time – nothing rushed or harried about the way they go about establishing credibility. Throughout the vast majority of the film the lens is on them and they display light and shade, but also childhood fascination and fun. Nina Meurisse, too, does much with the little screen time she has.

Authenticity is the word that came to mind when describing this special little film. Petite Maman has a simple and highly effective premise. Sciamma demonstrates total control of her art. The movie has been attractively shot by Claire Mathon.

As an exploration of childhood and a mother-daughter relationship that crosses time, it tapped into my psyche. Céline Sciamma has triumphed again.

Alex First

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