Updated: Dec 2, 2021
There was always going to be a lot of pressure surrounding Céline Sciamma's next film. Pressure on the director to follow up the international success of the acclaimed Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and pressure on the audience to view whatever came next as an 'important' film, regardless of what it was actually was. Fortunately Sciamma rose to the challenge to create something completely different, and yet equally daring, which she has called Petite Maman. I had the pleasure of seeing the film - followed by a Q&A hosted by Melanie Iredale - as part of #ReclaimTheFrame and the French Film Festival UK during a special screening at Ciné Lumière in London.
Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), an only child, accompanies her parents to a village on the outskirts of Paris, where they must clean out her mother's childhood home. Her grandmother has just passed away in a nursing home and, as they sort through the memories, her mother, Marion (played by Nina Meurisse), shares stories about growing up - including the beloved treehouse that she built in the woods. The memories and the grief become all too much for Marion, and she leaves Nelly and her father to continue the work alone ... or so it seems. As Nelly heads into the woods one day, she comes across a young girl her age (also called Marion) who is building a shelter among the trees. She helps her to carry some of the branches to build it, and Marion (played by Joséphine's real-life twin, Gabrielle) invites her back home when it starts to rain.
The house is a mirror image of the one Nelly is staying in, but it appears to be on the other side of the forest. She and Marion dry off, and make some cocoa, and slowly Nelly (and the audience) come to realise that this is actually her mother, and the house she grew up in, all those years ago. The two girls (both only - and lonely - children) become fast friends, and start to confide in one another about their hopes and fears. It's everything Nelly is missing right now with her mother having disappeared, and everything Marion needs as she prepares herself for a scary operation (which Nelly knows all about). Together, they finish building the treehouse, and Nelly finally opens up about what's going on, before she takes Marion to see the empty house they've been clearing on the other side of the woods.
In the Q&A which followed the film, director Céline Sciamma described it as a time-travel film. It's an accurate description, but not one I would have arrived at myself, as I tend to imagine those kind of films in a much different light. For me, Petite Maman is a sweet and uplifting film, which celebrates the joys of childhood and getting back to who we once were. Nelly has an opportunity that so many of us wish we did - to meet our parents at an earlier, more innocent, time in their lives, before they became the people that we know - and it's a transformative experience for the two of them. It may be a fantasy, but in this film it becomes real, which is exactly what those girls need in that moment.
Listening to Sciamma talk about the casting, and the creative process, was equally fascinating. She has a lot of humility and respect for her young actors (and people in general), so she doesn't talk down to them or devalue their contributions to the picture. Filmed almost entirely during lockdown last year, she found twin sisters Gabrielle and Joséphine Sanz, and knew they were perfect for the lead roles of Marion and Nelly. She wouldn't elaborate further, in order to protect the individual nature of the two girls, but she said that she knew right away one would be Nelly and which would be Marion. Both are brilliant in their own way, but it's quite apparent that Sciamma was correct in in her choices.
In terms of her approach to the young pair, Sciamma made specific reference to her work on Tomboy, and on writing the script for My Life As A Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette). In her eyes, it's very important how you treat and speak to children - and if you can understand the ethics of relating to a child, and you can apply that to the wider world, then you're good. It's a wonderful approach, and something I've been thinking about in the days since as it really changes the way you relate to both children and adults. Sciamma's approach to valuing everyone equally isn't just about the atmosphere she creates on set, it's also about the audience she's trying to build. Some of the inspiration for this comes from Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, who talks about creating the kind of room (audience) you want. For Sciamma, as with Miyazaki, her films do just that.
Going beyond the concept of time-travel, she was also concerned with making a film which felt timeless. It's all about sharing a common time, and cinematography places them in the same space and time. To reinforce this feeling, every piece of set decoration, and every item of clothing, was carefully chosen because it was something that was commonly used in the past and was still in use today. Most of the film was shot in Cergy, a region north-west of Paris where Sciamma grew up, and the idea of the treehouse and its surrounds came from her own childhood experiences. The grandmother's house/s were sets - based upon exteriors that Sciamma was familiar with, combined with the interior layout of her own grandmother's flat. In that regard, she felt that the interiors didn't quite reflect the outside of the house, but it didn't matter so long as the audience bought into it.
In taking the universal themes of childhood, grief and change, Sciamma has managed to make a worthy successor to Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which defies all expectations. It is an important film, but not in the way you might expect, and it builds a legacy that is all its own. Sure, that probably creates new problems and pressures for the inevitable follow-up, but right now she succeeds in her goal to create a memory of the film that leads to new memories and helps you to grow. Even if the rest of us don't get the chance to meet our mothers or fathers as children, we can certainly ask the questions and imagine what it would be like. Petite Maman deserves to be enjoyed in the cinema, where you can embrace the intimacy of the setting and give it your complete attention. At a short 72 minutes, it's a small ask for a film that is so perfectly packed with fullness and depth.
Petite Maman is now screening at Cine Lumiere in London, and can be seen at over the next month at Richmond The Station Cinema, Birmingham MAC, Hereford Courtyard, Plymouth Arts Cinema, and Bo'ness Hippodrome as part of the 29th French Film Festival UK.