There is what you might call a “spoiler” in the title of Céline Sciamma’s new movie, a key to unlocking her look at childhood that’s hiding in plain sight. The French filmmaker’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins not with love, but with death: An eight-year-old named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her elderly grandmother. Her mom (Nina Meurisse) is packing up everything in the house she grew up in, located on the edge of a forest. Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) is helping out the best he can. Nelly wants to comfort her grieving parent, but Mom keeps pushing away. Eventually, she leaves to mourn on her own, promising to return to Nelly in a few days. In the meantime, the girl and her father will finish cleaning out the place.
Wandering around the woods — the same rural expanse where Mom played as a kid — Nelly comes across a hut. It looks like the fort that la mère described as her personal sanctuary of yesteryear. Soon, she meets another girl. Her name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and the first thing you notice is that these two bear a striking resemblance to each other; the fact that the youngsters are played by siblings explains the how, but not quite the why. Marion invites her over to her house, which appears to be designed with nothing but vintage decor They make hot cocoa, play board games, pretend to be cops and robbers (or rather, Police Interrogator and Murderer of An American Who Works in a Coca-Cola Plant). Nelly gets to meet Marion’s mom (Margot Abascal). She’s happy to have a new companion in this limbo she’s stuck in. Still, there’s something about her new friend that seems extremely familiar….
If you know Sciamma primarily as the artist who gave us the scorching-hot, swooningly romantic Portrait, this storytelling pivot to fairy-tale Romanticism is likely to induce whiplash; it is quite obviously the furthest thing from a steamy tale of constricting social norms and repressed desire. But should you be familiar with her back catalog, notably Tomboy (2001) and Girlhood (2014), then you know that the agonies and ecstasies of growing up have been a longtime fascination. French cinema has a long, rich history of movies about the formative years, from Au Revoir Les Enfants to Zazie dans les Métro (and it’s worth pointing out that both of the Sanz sisters’ simple, no-frills performances are a huge part of making this are great addition to this longstanding tradition; they give you a genuine sense of childhood wonder, melancholy and joy). But there’s something about Sciamma’s enchanting, elliptical take on that period when the adult world feels like a mystery and innocence hasn’t been lost yet. While she isn’t trying to hide the narrative twist that swirls at the center of her film, Sciamma isn’t keen on explaining what’s going on either. That would distract from feeling she’s chasing, not to mention the bigger picture.
And it’s those elements that turn Petite Maman from a fanciful, delicate fantasy, delivered with a very straight face, into something like a minor mood-piece masterpiece. Maybe you’ve looked at faded photographs of much older relatives and loved ones, captured in the bloom of their younger days, and wondered what it would be like to have known them then. Perhaps you would have connected with them on an entirely different level. You might understand them better, and be able to fill in those unknowable gaps between, say, the idea of who the people who’ve raised you are and who they once were at your age. Again, we point you back to the film’s title. To watch these two preteens talk about their feelings toward each other — some formed now and other many, many years from now — is to see one of the oddest, yet most moving bridging of generation gaps ever committed to film.
Sciamma is weaving a spell here, so pure in its emotional resonance that it breaks your heart even as it heals wounds. There is a wrestling with extremely adult notions of loss, family, identity, acceptance, letting go and saying goodbye that the movie deals with, and the fact that it’s filtered through the eyes and voices of kids makes it’s easy to miss how deep she’s going. I’ve seen it three times now, and the movie seems to burrow a little bit further down into your soul every time. The only thing you could accuse Petite Maman of is seeming to take a perverse pride in how modest what it’s doing is in terms of execution versus conception. It’s a “little” film that contains multitudes. And it’s unmissable.