© Lilies Films / Courtesy of Neon
It is a simple story, in some ways like the kind of dream a shrink might term autobiographical. In such a dream, a recent experience in your waking life is transformed so that time past and time present become one. You might be the age you are now but living in the house where you spent your childhood, or you might visit your grandparents and find them welcoming you to their brownstone walk-up, long ago torn down to make way for a high-rise, which is simultaneously occupying the same place on the block. Freud defined dreams as the product of the primary processes of the unconscious, condensation and displacement—the proof that the unconscious does not know time and that our memories all live together inside us and determine who we are. But none are as determinate as the memories of childhood.
Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman (2021) is perhaps better described not as a dream but as the projection of the imaginings of an 8-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose grandmother has just died in a nursing home. Marion (Nina Meurisse), Nelly’s mother, is nearly frozen with grief at the loss of her mother, and Nelly, who is grieving too, tries to comfort her as they drive to the grandmother’s house, where they and Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) immediately begin to sort through cabinets, separating objects they want to keep from those that will be trashed or given away. Nelly asks to keep her grandmother’s cane, and she and her mother look through Marion’s grade-school notebooks, which Marion is surprised that her mother kept. At night, Marion puts Nelly to sleep in her old bed, crawling under the covers with her daughter. She tells Nelly that when she was a child, she would see the shadow of a black panther and mistake her own terrified breathing for that of the big cat. Mother and daughter look at the play of light and shadow under the doorframe and decide that there is no panther to be seen on this night.
In the morning, Marion is gone without an explanation or a goodbye. Nelly goes into the yard to play with an old paddleball set that she found in a cupboard. The elastic band which is supposed to bring the ball “home” to the racket is worn out, and the untethered ball flies through the trees into the deep woods beyond the yard. Nelly goes after it and sees, in a clearing that her mother had described to her as the place where she once built a hut out of broken tree branches, a little girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who is dragging branches to build such a hut. The little girl looks exactly like Nelly except that she is wearing a red jacket where Nelly’s outfit is blue. The girl in red introduces herself as Marion, and Nelly remarks that Marion is her mother’s name. It begins to rain, and the two little girls run through the woods to Marion’s house, which is virtually identical to Nelly’s grandmother’s house. Exploring the rooms, Nelly finds a woman asleep, and hanging above her bed is the triangular trapeze bar that people with injuries or chronic illnesses use to pull themselves into a sitting position. The same triangle was hanging over Nelly’s grandmother’s bed in the nursing home, and a cane just like her grandmother’s cane appears next to the bed in which Marion’s mother is asleep. I write “Marion’s mother” because at this point, Nelly begins to understand who Marion and her mother are, although she won’t explain any of this to Marion until a few days later.
Sciamma has cited Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) as an inspiration for Petite Maman, which makes her decision to employ photographic realism to depict Nelly’s waking dream the most formally radical and emotionally involving choice possible. There is no animation in Petite Maman, no CGI work, and as for a time machine, a broken paddleball is no DeLorean. Nor are there canted angles, heavy shadowing, jagged edits, or any other visual coding of film as dream. Petite Maman is rooted in the quotidian. I can’t think of another film in which the sight of a little girl brushing her teeth or stirring cold cereal into milk in real time is so absorbing. Much of what makes the film compelling is in the casting and performances of the Sanz twins, who bring the knowledge of their lifetime together to their interactions. The intimacy they share is captured by cinematographer Claire Mathon’s extraordinary close-ups of their faces—sometimes grave, sometimes expectant, sometimes wildly happy. Mathon dapples both the cool blue-and-green interiors of the house and the fiery autumnal foliage of the woods with sunlight, creating images that are carefully framed but never static. Just as essential is Julien Lacheray’s editing, which is precise and also surprising, alert to the interpenetration of reality and imagination in a time machine that is the movie itself.
Late in Petite Maman, 8-year-old Nelly tells 8-year-old Marion that she is her child, and Marion asks: “Do you come from the future?” “I come from the path behind you,” answers Nelly. As does Sciamma, whom I imagine following a path from her own childhood to the cathartic expression of the daughter/mother bond which ends the film. All of Sciamma’s films contain autobiographical elements, but none are as revealing as Petite Maman’s portrait of the filmmaker as a fledgling tomboy writer/director, already eager to claim all roles on-screen and off that have only been bestowed on men. Nelly and Marion write a script for a dark and tangled mystery melodrama, part of which they act out together. Marion plays “the Countess,” who is rescued from some intrigue involving the murder of an American woman who runs a Coca-Cola factory in France, and Nelly takes on all the male characters, including the police inspector who is the father of the Countess’s child. Getting into costume, Nelly looks at herself in the mirror while attempting to wrap a man’s tie around her neck. The shot is just long enough for us to realize that she is trying out a fantasy of growing up as a boy, as not only her mother’s daughter but her lover as well. But it is Marion’s mother/Nelly’s grandmother who knots the tie properly and gives Nelly an approving look as she does it.
“Are you listening to the music of the future?” Marion asks Nelly on their last morning together. In response, Nelly takes off her headphones and gives them to Marion, her mother/sister/imaginary friend. The sublime “Music of the Future” (music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, lyrics by Sciamma), which sounds like something from an early Philip Glass opera sung by a children’s chorus, accompanies them as they paddle an inflatable canoe across a lake, their destination a floating cement pyramid. The transcendent moments in Sciamma’s films are all set to music: Marieme (Karidja Touré) in Girlhood (2014) watching Lady (Assa Sylla), the love of her young life, and the two other teenage girls in their crew dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and then throwing herself into the dance with them; Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) sitting alone in a concert-hall balcony, listening to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and weeping in an extended close-up; and Nelly and Marion, side by side, smiling at their adventure across the sea of time. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that for the first time in Sciamma’s five feature films, it is happy.
Amy Taubin lives in NYC, where she writes about movies and art.