In Petite Maman (2021) Céline Sciamma has made a film with the kind of elegant narrative construction that you so seldom see, that seems to have long gone out of fashion; it’s the kind of filmmaking I associate with Alexander Mackendrick’s films and specifically his book “on filmmaking”; one of clarity, simplicity, and a focus on visual language as the medium's primary form of communication, maybe even it’s essence.
In the first scene we see 8 year old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) sitting with an old lady helping her do school work, naturally we assume Nelly is in hospital, until she walks to the room next door and says goodbye to another old lady; this isn’t a children’s hospital, she isn’t the one that’s sick. Then again she goes to the next room down and her Mother (Nina Meurisse) is packing it up, all the pieces align as Nelly asks if she can keep the walking stick. All of this, and in fact, quite a bit more - that she was being tutored by another patient suggests a familiarity of having spent a lot of time there, this wasn’t sudden, it was likely quite sustained - is all held within one simple, uninflected shot.
Sciamma is always looking for an un-flashy clarity, whilst exploring her passed Grandmother’s house as her parents are emptying it out, Nelly finds a cupboard disguised as a wall, you have to press on it, then it clicks open. In it she finds a paddleball which, as soon as she goes out to play with it, breaks, the ball flies off into the forest and as she searches for it nelly runs into a version of her mother, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who’s the same age as her. They quickly make friends and as they run back to Marion’s house to hide from the rain, we start to wonder, is it the same one, some past version of it. A slightly dazed Nelly presses on that same part of the wall and cupboard clicks open; it’s the very same house. This is conveyed in one action and hardly a second in a shot you’d probably have to use anyway for establishing space and keeping flow.
The film’s tight focus on narrative and very brief 72 minutes doesn’t get in the way of little moments of life, it finds plenty of space for things that aren’t strictly relevant to the plot, from the way that Nelly eats a crisp in five or six quick little bites, to the scenes where she and the young marion play together. They act out this little drama in such a wonderfully observed and very funny way; Marion is the wife of a murdered coca-cola factory owner, and Nelly the detective who comes back after the case has been settled to asks Marion to run away with her. Marion says it’s not possible and pulls back a curtain to take out a big baby doll, “this is a our child” she says. Nelly looks at it and dryly observes “he’s beautiful”.
Nelly’s particular interest in playing, and dressing, as a male character is another rich detail, a sign of a deeper inner life, that exists in and of itself and allows for probably my favourite little moment in the film: she she tries to put on a tie herself and with no idea how to, she just tries anyway in a way only children do, assuming she’ll just figure it out as she goes along.
For the most part Sciamma’s technique with the child actors seems to be a well worn and effective one, get them to just read the lines and do the actions, reduce and let the gaps fill themselves in. But these actors are actual twins and in those moments of play and joy it’s hard to feel that their lively chemistry is a little missing from other parts of the film.
It’s larger structures still hold together, an emotional note never rings false. Building the film around one big musical moment, it’s only use of music at all, risks it all feeling too structured and artificial, but it works so beautifully. It’s both huge and inconsequential. Nelly and Marion don’t have much time left together - the former’s parent’s are almost finished emptying the house and ready to take her home and the latter has to go for an operation. She’s scared but nelly re-assures her, she literally knows she’s going to be okay. Marion wants the listen to Nelly’s walkman, she wants to hear the ‘music of the future’, Nelly agrees and she puts the headphones on and we hold on her face, in silence. Then it blasts out as the girls row into this big stone pyramid in the middle of the lake, the inner walls almost look like the night sky. It’s a moment of harmony with the hugeness of the world, looking inside and trying to discover, it’s not a moment of discovery but of acceptance, an openness to the things you can’t fully understand.
Then the film’s conclusion, it’s biggest emotional moment, is all held within one word. When Nelly goes back to the house and sees her Mother again she sees not a symbolic figure, the role of Mother, but a real person. She looks up at her and says: “Marion”.
Originally posted on Substack on December 12th 2021