By Courtney Duckworth 

Published in Cinema Scope #87 (Summer 2021)

Fairy tales routinely kill or banish parents to clear a path for the roaming imaginations of children. Recall that Hansel and Gretel must plumb the forest alone, assaying their own mettle, and the stranded Goose Girl cannot speak her secret self to another soul. Céline Sciamma, who said in an interview with Tricia Tuttle that she “wanted to get rid of the adults” in her stories, renders similarly untended youth stumbling into life. Throughout her work, the French writer-director rigs up respites from the confines just outside, boundless sweeps where her characters can play at being otherwise, only to then scupper them—a guardian, a man, money, marriage, the clock inevitably intervenes—and so show their ache, transience, and beauty. That these temporal films which magnify the small hopes sprouting between restriction and responsibility are called “coming-of-age” makes sense because, somehow or other, youth always ends.

In Naissance des pieuvres (2007), a sphinxlike synchronized swimmer disquiets the incipient desires of two schoolgirls across a summer spent improvising, sometimes brutally, at sex. Also set over dog days, Tomboy (2011) has a neighbourhood kid don a fresh moniker and gender performance absent calcifying adults. Bande des filles’ (2014) diamantine troupe of poor Parisians effervesces together, sparking palpable magic as they dish and dance to Rihanna in a blue-lit hotel room; when their camaraderie collapses under social pressure like a spider’s gossamer web, it discloses the delicacy of such bonds. Centuries prior, on a barren coast, an artist and her recusant subject are granted but five days to consummate their creative and carnal partnership in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019). Petite maman whittles its reprieve down to three, during which a bereaved mother and daughter converge through a trick of time. 

The tale opens as Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) bids goodbye to elderly women in room after room until reaching one that lies empty. Her maternal grandmother is dead, the space is regressing into a care home’s clinical cell, and the easy intimacy of Nelly’s leave-taking suggests a protracted decline. From a low angle, aligned with the eight-year-old in a grammar that the film sustains, we see the slumped, pensive posture of Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), though not her face; her grief remains remote, unutterable. Later, from the backseat of a car, Nelly stretches forward to feed snacks to her mom at the wheel, radiating precocious patience. Marion glances at her in the rearview mirror—a mere slice of eyes. Never do they inhabit the same frame before entering grandmother’s house, where Marion grew up, as if the place itself stitches some hidden seam between them. Even then, the sheet-swathed furniture is more aloof than memory-ridden. There’s another rift: Marion sleeps apart from Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne). On the second night, Nelly rues her farewell to grand-mère as flimsy, inadequate, and Marion softly coaxes her child to try again. The transposition works: in the morning, Nelly wakes to find her mother gone.

“If you want to share the intimacy of women,” Sciamma has said, “you have to share their loneliness.” Companionless, Nelly self-soothes with a chanced-upon paddle ball—“perfect,” she chirps blithely, for one. But the ball snaps its tether and sails off into the woods, another abandonment. She quests after it and encounters instead, by some strange transmutation, a girl around her age calling for aid with a burden: a branch for a makeshift hut akin to the one Nelly’s mom once reminisced about building. The pair clicks like any children reflexively conspiring; more, for they are reflections, as the new girl is portrayed by Sanz’s twin, Gabrielle. Neither remarks on the resemblance, or on the sudden rain that propels them into the girl’s home, an uncanny photocopy of Nelly’s. Other coincidences accrue, such that it’s hardly surprising when we discover that the newcomer is named Marion, space-time has crumpled as capriciously as someone strolling from A to B, and mother and daughter, now eye to eye, can join in each other’s solitary hours. (At least, that is, until Marion’s slated surgery to mend an inherited affliction for which her own mother uses a cane.) Sciamma’s sleight of hand keeps the parent present even in her absence.

Such closeness surely seemed miraculous as COVID-19 crested in Europe, when Petite maman began production last November. Loss was—is—the year’s cruel, insistent fact, and mourning its murmuring undertow. Sciamma responded by sketching a slim, 72-minute fable (albeit written, presciently, pre-pandemic) in which a family’s pain unspools across isolation. Her frequent cinematographer Claire Mathon limpidly shot the fall foliage outside Paris, while the domestic interiors occupied a single, coextensive set, inflected to cue both their difference and overlap. One tell is some garish chartreuse wallpaper, backdropping much of kid-Marion’s home but reduced to a vertical patch in Nelly’s, evoking a portal or door. Past and present superimpose like layered tracing paper or, in this case, redecoration. This fantastic double vision develops an image from Portrait wherein the painter is haunted by a lambent apparition of her lover in the wedding gown worn at their parting, which has not yet transpired. In other words, love foresees loss; grief coils time into a knot, looping back upon itself.

But Petite maman mines bracing pleasures from memory’s echoes. Nelly is able to walk around an animate diorama of her still-living grandmother’s house, regarding each object as it was then, thrumming with daily use, versus the inert version her father is busy emptying; having learned to anticipate death, she savours this precious contact. She helps her grandma with arrow-word puzzles, seeks help in finagling a necktie for dress-up. Marion, too, gleans a chance “to see it one last time,” a gnomic line that could refer either to her eventual return or her sojourn into childhood, as if she has been rewinding her life like an old videotape. That sense of re-experiencing youth with an intensified awareness of its impermanence is spelled out in a scene where Nelly and her grandma sing “Happy Birthday” to Marion, now nine; when their voices fade, she insists on a do-over. The whole film rests in her brief word: “Again.”

And how do Nelly and Marion seize their rare “again?” Mostly, they play. With some exceptions, questions and ruminations are deferred in favour of the abstracting artificiality of make-believe. Together they stage a drama where each slips into outsized personas: a countess and maid, in reference to Portrait; an inspector; an American businessman who has, Nelly deadpans, “a Coca-Cola plant in France.” Such scenes slot seamlessly into their surroundings, so that one girl will ask the other, “How did you die?” and seconds pass before we catch onto the joke. These moments destabilize the whole, making reality scan like an extension of their fantasies—the play seeming more real and the real more playful, tenuous. 

Is Marion Nelly’s true mother, or another ghost, a consoling escape? Petite maman skirts answers, and although its naturalism is firmly rooted, Marion bestows Nelly with such exquisite absolution regarding their relationship that the film may be more compelling as wish fulfilment. Indeed, Nelly’s father quite literally fulfils her wishes: judging her too preoccupied for a bedtime story, he proposes “teleporting to tomorrow” and flips the light switch, precisely matching a cut to the forest hut the next day which recasts his words as a spell and lends the impression that the diegesis can be disrupted at any moment.

Hence an alternate title: Playing and Reality. In that landmark text probing how and why children play, the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote: “The mother’s main task (next to providing an opportunity for illusion) is disillusionment.” Petite maman’s mother and daughterrevel in illusion but balk at disillusionment. Gothic shades lurk beneath, implying the grandmother’s fretting is in part what entraps her afflicted daughter. Early on, the duo hunches over a board game, and Nelly says, “You’re in the dungeon, back to square one,” just as her grand-mère chides Marion for riskily venturing out. These muted traumas stay tantalizingly murky. Nevertheless, I found myself resisting Marion’s repeated reassurances, which struck me as too conciliatory, like dialogue heard in heaven. What child of a melancholy maman doesn’t long to be told, of her future birth, “I’m already thinking about you?” How much thornier is a mother who can love and regret in one breath? Sciamma’s storytelling seems to be teetering on a precipice, set either to harden into schema or sink back into the stewy neuroses that so roiled Naissance des pieuvres and Tomboy—pitched, like fairy tales, beyond adult comprehension.