TIFF Review – Petite Maman
Céline Sciamma is back at TIFF after her previous film, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) also screened at the fest in 2019. Petite Maman (2021) centers on Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a young girl who is experiencing the aftermath of the recent death of her grandmother. While she is experiencing sadness on her own, she also sees it through the eyes of her mother (Nina Meurisse), who has lost hers.
Nelly travels with her parents to her grandmother’s house to clear it out, which will take a few days, so the family stays there. It may be inferred that Nelly hasn’t spent any time in this house, possibly because her grandmother spent the last years at her retirement home or because the relationship between her mother and grandmother wasn’t incredibly close. Regardless, the picking through of the remainders in the house and going through keepsakes spurns memories from Nelly’s mom and questions from Nelly about her mom’s life as a kid. One thing Nelly knew before reaching the house was the hut that her mom built in the forest outside the home. As any curious young kid does, she wanders in the woods for things to do and explore. Shortly after arriving, Nelly’s mom leaves in the night, leaving Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish the cleaning and clearing themselves. Nelly’s father implies that the loss of Nelly’s grandmother is particularly hard on her mom and left because it was too difficult emotionally to stay.
Nelly continues to wander the forest when she comes upon a young girl dragging a long, large branch and asking for help. Both girls take this branch to a partially constructed hut. After helping and getting caught in the rain, this girl we learn is named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and she invites Nelly to her house to dry off and have a snack. As Nelly walks in, she notices this house looks exactly like her grandmother’s house, and the quizzical similarities preoccupy Nelly’s mind. She leaves the house and thankfully finds her way back to her grandmother’s house on the other side. She is relieved to find it as she left it.
There is a science fiction element to Petite Maman, but it is never fully explained or confirmed in matter-of-fact terms. It is films like this that leave it open to the audience’s interpretation and make for some stellar post-film discourse with your friends. Screening this film virtually by myself leaves a hole for those fun and insightful conversations. From my viewpoint, it all happened as there were third-party witnesses to the presence of Marion, although they never knew who she was specifically. She wasn’t just an imaginary friend made up by the mind of an only child.
While we debate on the phenomenon that brought Marion into the life of Nelly, it is through Marion that Nelly discovers more about her mother. Nelly is wiser than her years like she has had to grow up faster because of what happened to her mother. She understands things about sadness and coping that speak to living with a mother that has been depressed in the past. The loss of the grandmother has just amplified it and given a finality to questions that will never be answered. When Nelly’s mother leaves, it is just a thing that happens. The father picks up where the mother left off and continues on in her absence. Nelly does not continue to ask why her mother did leave, just that it happened, and moves on.
The cinematography in Petite Maman by Claire Mathon is sublime, allowing rooms to look bigger than they are, putting the audience in the frame of reference of a small child, and forest scenes to feel grand and full of wonder. The production design by Lionel Brison allows for the two replica houses to be two distinct characters, one devoid of much life and comfort to one filled with activity yet not quite a happy house.
It isn’t easy to review Petite Maman without giving away a central plot point on which the rest of the film depends. Nevertheless, Céline Sciamma wrote and directed a poignant film that is only 70 minutes long and managed to fill it with emotion. The emotional investment in the story wasn’t completely evident until that final scene ended and the tears welled. While not all questions are answered by its end, Petit Maman is genuinely a lovely story with some resounding notes on the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters.