Ah, grief. A thing that plagues us all in one way or another, and incidentally, is a hot topic for many of today’s filmmakers. Some of the best cinematic performances we’ve been blessed with in recent years have been centered around it, especially in the horror genre – from Toni “I am your mother!” Collette in Hereditary (2018), Essie Davis in The Babadook (2014), Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019) to most recently, Rebecca Hall in the extremely overlooked The Night House (2020). But when master storyteller Céline Sciamma takes on the subject in her latest flick, Petite Maman, we get to see this often gut-wrenching plot device in an entirely new and beautiful light.
Part of a roster of daring French female directors rightfully overtaking our screens recently, notably joined by the sensational Raw (2016) and Titane (2021, one of the year’s best) mastermind Julia Ducournau, and Mati Diop, who gave us the spectacular Atlantics (2016) – Sciamma’s enchanting 2019 tale Portrait of a Lady on Fire continues to be internationally adored: for being not only a breath of fresh air in the period piece landscape, but a crown jewel of queer cinema. Naturally, then, a follow-up feature from the director was hotly anticipated.
I’m not sure if this is synonymous with getting older, or a result of the time we’ve collectively spent in isolation over the past couple of years that have given me copious amounts of time to spend with just my thoughts as company, which often leads me to fixate on things; but any sort of nostalgia for my childhood years has been hitting me hard. I’ve found myself increasingly captivated by and uncontrollably empathetic towards films led by children this year, namely: Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, and of course, Petite Maman. Though only the latter managed to pack the same punch in a runtime that barely surpassed one hour, in a foreign language, and with the most simple yet high-concept tale I’ve witnessed in a long time. It is, quite literally, small but mighty.
Let me first confess that I am a total, for want of a better word, Céline Sciamma fangirl; who believes that the director has an undeniably polished and almost completely flawless filmography to date. But Petite Maman was the first of Sciamma’s films that I went in to see blindly, knowing basically nothing about its plot, its characters or its tone. I quickly realised that this is indeed the best way to approach this enthralling little story.
Told through the lens of eight year old Nelly, we first see our lead saying goodbye to her beloved grandmother, who just passed away, at the nursing home where her final moments were spent. Nelly brings a subtle golden glow and sense of calm to even the most sterile, daunting of settings; giving time and attention to each of the frail residents still inside the facility. On the car ride to her grandmother’s sweet forest home which the family must now clear out, we see a touching reversal of roles as Nelly lovingly feeds her mother snacks and takes care of her.
Once they arrive in the empty yet lived-in home, set deep within rows of crisp amber leaves, Nelly’s adoration for her mother spills out in her desire to get to know her better, about her childhood, her fears, and anything else she’s willing to reveal. From gentle pleas for bedtime stories to probing questions, Nelly’s curiosity reflects the universal need – in any age – to fully know someone.
The opportunity for this seems to fade, though, as Nelly’s mother unexpectedly leaves in the middle of the night, unable to bear the weight of grief in far too familiar surroundings. We see Nelly now turn her attempts at connection to her father, alongside finding games to play to dilute her solitude, presumably as a distraction from thinking about both her grandmother and mother suddenly leaving her. One day, things brighten up. As Nelly is exploring the forest, she comes across a girl of a similar age to her, who peculiarly looks just like her, and shares the same name as her mother: Marion.
Marion’s house is also identical to that of Nelly’s grandmother, and Marion’s mother looks just like… you guessed it. Eventually, after long, harmonious days filled with dressing up, making pancakes, sleepovers and building tree forts – Nelly sincerely confesses to Marion that even though they are currently the same age, they are actually mother and daughter. It’s the kind of tender moment that can be found in a Miyazaki epic (cited as a major influence for the film), and the result is a blossoming bond between the pair; where fears can be overcome and trust is never broken. Through telling the story from a child’s perspective, Sciamma gently reminds us what we forget too easily as we grow up: our parents and carers were children once, too.
As the film draws to a close, with an uplifting embrace between Nelly and her mother – now back to her usual adult form, there’s an air of hope and mutual understanding between them. Sciamma hints at a new beginning for them, that through their respective struggles during the same journey, they can start afresh – out of the dark and into the light, holding on to each other and never losing that grip along the way. I almost felt as though I was part of this embrace myself. And trust me, you’ll feel it too.
‘Good Grief: the beguiling beauty of Petite Maman’ is an article written by Ruwaida Khandker. You can follow Ruwaida on Instagram.