Céline Sciamma’s new film returns us to the magic and grief of childhood.
Ever since seeing Portrait of a Lady On Fire back in 2019 and having a breakdown in the theater parking lot afterwards, I’ve explored all of Céline Sciamma’s previously released work, and followed her new releases closely.
Petite Maman is her most recent, and perhaps her most subtle film. It doesn’t contain any of the typical tension you would expect in film and the often touted craft advice that “conflict is story.” The eight year-old protagonist, Nelly, doesn’t run away, or hurt animals, and she isn’t being bullied. Her parents share a standard enough marriage.
Instead of opting to explore those typical, obvious ideas, Sciamma chooses to focus the lens on an important, real, conflict. One we all likely have to face in our lives at some point: the death of someone we care about. For Nelly, it’s her grandmother’s death that shatters the normal world and kick-starts the film’s events. It begins with Nelly wandering the upper ward of the hospital after they’ve removed her grandmother’s body. As the audience, we aren’t even let in on what’s happened until Nelly has finished exploring, finds her mother, Marion, as she folds sheets in the hospital room, and then the information is delivered in one realistic yet heart-punching line from Nelly to her mother:
“Can I keep her cane?”
Nelly’s mother has had a more difficult relationship with her mother than Nelly did as a grandchild, although we never are allowed to truly understand it as we only see it through Nelly’s eyes. Petite Maman’s first act navigates these two separate yet intergenerational threads of grief—the mother dealing with her mother’s death, and the child dealing with their beloved grandmother’s death, and her mother’s grief.
Much of the film could be distilled down into the word “curious.” For one, Sciamma is profoundly curious both about how we deal with grief in general, and then, how a child deals with grief. On a technical level, that curiosity is conveyed through the shots: the camera lens is wide yet focused, hyper vigilant about observing every moment of Nelly, her mother, and the aftermath of this event. When the pair leave the hospital, we’re subjected to a static side-profile of Marion’s grave face as she drives. She seems absent, lost in memory, and then Nelly’s hand flickers in and pops a chip into her Mother’s mouth. Marion eats the chip, still lost in thought, but as Nelly keeps feeding chips to her, the grave look dissipates into a glowing smile. It’s a scene of simple action, but the simplicity is merely the iceberg under which an ocean of complex emotions are crashing against each other, as often happens with humanity.
Most importantly here, though, the child has managed, in feeding her mother chips, to bring Marion back to the moment of life.
Almost like magic.
The other curiosity is Nelly’s. Sciamma’s answer to “How does a child grieve?” is that she would be curious. Rather than focus on the visceral, very real components of death, which would be almost impossible for an eight year old to understand, Nelly understands it as an absence. And if the people she loves—her grandmother, her mother—will be absent one day, it means she will no longer know them.
Through this, her curiosity about life blooms. Who was my grandmother? Who is my mother? She wants to know, to remember, to understand. After the drive, the two meet up with Nelly’s father at their grandmother’s cottage in the woods. That first night, Nelly asks her mother questions about her past, and, heart-breakingly, they’re questions that Marion is too tired and preoccupied to answer.
But, right when she’s about to turn off the lights and is about to leave the room, she redeems herself—Marion comes over, tucks herself into bed with Nelly, and tells her daughter a scary story about this room; her room, when she was a child. This moment of connection between mother and daughter is powerful, and emotional.
This cottage is a place Marion grew up, and Nelly has never been. They’re tasked with emptying it of the grandmother’s possessions over the next few days, and while the parents begin that difficult mission, Nelly is left to explore the cottage, and the woods. As she does, she’s drawn to memory, to the past—much of her goal is to find the fort her mother said she built when she was Nelly’s age.
In other stories, the woods would be a menacing place for a child to traverse alone, but in this story, the woods are simply woods. They are what they are. Sciamma has carved everything down to the bone, including the setting. She lets the nature of everything convey its multitudes over dressing it up with certain metaphors. The viewer is left to interpret and feel whatever they feel when viewing.
Nelly doesn’t discover the fort, but she does discover something far more interesting—another girl, her age, with the same name as her mother. Nelly in fact catches this “other” Marion building a fort.
Nelly helps her construct the fort, they become friends, and the Other Marion invites her back to her house for lunch. As it turns out, the cottage Marion brings her to is an exact replica as Nelly’s Grandmother’s cottage. Marion introduces Nelly to her mother, a woman who walks with a cane, and it isn’t long before the viewer puts it all together:
This Other Marion is in fact Nelly’s own mother when they were the same age, and this woman, her grandmother, is alive again.
Nelly, now, has the opportunity to know her grandmother while also knowing she’s gone in her reality, and to have all her questions about her mother’s childhood answered in the most wonderful way possible—through building forts, making pancakes for the first time, playing dress-up and board games on a level playing field.
This wonder is made sharper because, as it turns out, Nelly can traverse the two dimensions easily—walking to the other reality is as easy as, well, walking—and after lunch, she returns to her parents to discover that her mother is gone. She couldn’t handle the grief and left to be alone for a few days, Nelly’s father tells her. Now, Nelly’s grandmother is absent through death, and her mother is absent in life right when Nelly needs her most.
Nelly starts spending all of her time with her young mother, and since her adult mother can’t answer anything, she decides she’ll learn it all with her as a child.
The other magic of it, too, is that at some point early on in the film, Nelly confesses to her eight-year-old mother that she’s her daughter, and her mother, her friend now, believes her completely. Sciamma doesn’t waste any time on any “logical” doubt because, honestly, that would be boring. Refreshingly, they move on, knowing that time is short. They continue to be children, and it’s both beautiful and magical to witness the evolution of what that means.