Review: Petite Maman

Serious movies that focus on the lives, particularly the inner lives, of children make me suspicious; or, at least, mildly uncomfortable. The assumption of innocence allows filmmakers to exploit feelings in the viewer that might be more problematic were the characters adults. Celine Sciamma’s third feature has such a quality, and there’s almost a winking acknowledgement that she’s going to use this exploitative facility to her dramatic advantage. But the story and direction are so deeply involved in a particular child’s inner life that the viewer doesn’t have much of a chance to observe the action from a remove. You either enter this world fully or remain outside, baffled.

Everything we see and hear is from the 8-year-old standpoint of Nelly (Josephine Sanz), who is first seen walking through a nursing home in rural France saying goodbye to the female residents. It’s a politeness that becomes somewhat chilling when we realize that Nelly is there because her grandmother, another resident, has just died. Not unsurprisingly, her mother (Nina Meurisse), is heartbroken and uncommunicative, and Nelly allows her her grief, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. And yet we also feel her need to comfort her mother in any way she can, and this effort makes a vital impression in the sense that we can tap into our own childhood memories as a means of empathy. 

Nelly, her mother, and her father (Stephane Varupenne) repair to her grandmother’s house in the woods, where Nelly’s mother grew up, to pack up her things. The next day, the mother is gone, and her father tells Nelly, “She’s not coming back.” Of course, he means she’s not coming back to this house, and the adult part of our brain, conditioned by storytelling devices, immediately understands that she is too bereft to remain in a house with that many memories; but the part of our brain that has appropriate Nelly’s sensibility thinks: Maybe she’s never coming back. At this point, the movie takes a daring leap, with Nelly entertaining a fantasy about her mother that is both easy to comprehend and yet very specific to Nelly’s circumstances. It’s not just that Nelly invents an imaginary friend (Gabrielle Sanz) who is essentially her mother at her age, but that Sciamma doesn’t frame it as a fantasy. Nelly passes back and forth between the world of her imagination and so-called reality without any change in temporal or spatial quality, and seems to fully understand what is going on. Her father, who for some reason she doesn’t seem to know very well (he has to ask her permission to smoke), suddenly becomes her only human link to her present reality, and in her sudden need to be close to her mother and, more vitally, understand her and her grief, uses what she knows about her (the illness she shared with her own mother, her desire at one point to become an actress) to build a relationship that she can use in her mother’s absence, meaning as a friend and not a parent. 

And as children do, Nelly and her new companion communicate through play, which is presented in a disarmingly private manner. Sciamma doesn’t explain away Nelly’s behavior. She instead uses her loneliness to explicate how a universal human condition, the need to understand where we come from, affects our emotional development. 

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Petite Maman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Lilies Film/France 3 Cinema

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