The two films I have most been looking forward to in 2021 were both released this weekend. They weren’t Bond or Dune or any of the four MCU movies we are getting this year; nope I’ve been most excited about Ghostbusters Afterlife and this, the new film from French director Céline Sciamma.
Sciamma has a wonderful ability to look at female companionship and to examine it in her films. 2007’s Waterlilies and 2014’s Girlhood both centred around teen friendship and last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which was my favourite movie of those twelve months, hence my great anticipation for this one) told a beautiful story of two women who became lovers. This film in turn focuses on the relationship between a mother and a daughter and it is just sublime. Sciamma has such a lightness of touch in how she approaches her work but her observations are insightful and profound. She is a brilliant film maker and anything she makes is an event.
Petite Maman was made during the restrictions and knowing this you can see how the film has been limited; with a small cast and few locations. There is no compromise to her creativity though and the result has all of her usual quiet power.
Some of the publicity has discussed the set up of the film but I have read critics who have avoided any mention of it so be warned that from here, what follows may be considered a spoiler.
The plot follows eight year old Nelly who, following the death of her maternal grandmother, goes with her family to sort out the empty house. Becoming a little distanced from her mourning parents she wanders out into the woods around the property but walks too far and somehow ends up twenty three years in the past. There she meets her mother at the same age as her, and this interesting dynamic prompts a simple narrative that is sweet yet still loaded with meaning. The relationship the two girls have is easy and charming but is always defined by the slightly strained relationship the two of them are currently having in the future.
All of the science fiction trappings that could exist around this premise have been totally stripped away, there is none of this to complicate the plot. Both girls are free to wander between their two houses even though one is staying in the building in 2021 and the other in the same home in 1998. They do have awareness that this arrangement is time bound (as it were) but neither is trapped Marty McFly style. Petite Maman is not really a time travel film at all, this is just the conceit that brings the girls together. It could just as easily be about visitations from ghosts of the living or it might be a dream but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t even that this is ambiguous, it is just irrelevant.
The film has a cast of eight and while all of the members of Nelly’s family play a key part (especially the grandmother who is not yet a grandmother) it is essentially a two hander between the children. They are played by sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz who are both utterly delightful. Sciamma has got a natural performance out of them that matches the mastery of every other aspect of her directing skills. The actors’ familial connection is obviously already there by Sciamma knows exactly how to utilise it.
Petite Maman is such a treat. It won’t be topping my list this year but it is going to be comfortably in the top ten (and higher than the new Ghostbusters). It is a wonderful parable about our connections to our parents and the joys of having children and another movie that shows Céline Sciamma as a truly exceptional film maker.
The Ripley Factor:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire had a strong equality message but even in the context of that film, where the women were rejecting the rules of a patriarchal society, the characters were utterly defined by themselves rather than their relationship to the men around them. Girlhood similarly had moments when the characters stood up to males but again this was incidental. Sciamma is a major voice in women’s cinema and is contributing to a time when that might cease to be such a thing but her films are about females more than they are about feminism. This is evident in Petite Maman more than ever.