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Berlinale 2021: “Petite Maman” is Céline Sciamma’s ode to innocence

Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma’s followup to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a graceful tale of rediscovered childhood.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.)

In the wake of the international success of her hypnotic, Gothic-infused romantic drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), it would have been natural to assume that Céline Sciamma‘s next film would be a major project and the center of great scrutiny. Perhaps recognizing and preferring to avoid that template, Sciamma instead went the other way. She not only follows up Portrait with the decidedly small-scale Petite Maman, she shot it so quickly and in such secrecy that most people didn’t even know she was working on anything until its world premiere at Berlinale was announced. 

What’s not surprising about Petite Maman is how good it is. While its reduced scope, no-name cast, and brief running time (72 minutes) might suggest an aggressively minor work—the sort of thing a filmmaker might toss off in between more obviously important projects—the end result is anything but that. This is an extraordinarily touching and thoughtful work that takes Sciamma’s love of coming-of-age stories revolving around young women and adds a quietly fantastical twist to the mix. And she does so without losing any of the humanity that she has demonstrated in the past. 

As the film opens, eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), and father (Stephane Varupenne) are arriving at Marion’s childhood home to pack her recently-passed grandmother’s things. Nelly is perceptive enough to recognize that her mother is sad—she herself is upset that her last goodbye to her grandmother wasn’t a good one. When it all becomes too much for Marion and she abruptly takes off, leaving Nelly and her dad behind to finish with the house, the young girl is mostly able to accept the sudden absence.

While going outside to play in the woods next to the house, Nelly sees another young girl about her age (Gabrielle Sanz) dragging pieces of wood around for a tree fort she’s building. Nelly lends a hand and the girl eventually reveals that her name is… Marion. Although the name and physical resemblance are fairly obvious, it’s when Nelly goes back to Marion’s home and meets her mother (Margot Abascal) that she finally realizes that this Marion is indeed her own mother around the time that she herself was eight.

Over the course of the next couple of days, the two become fast friends. Nelly even tells Marion who she really is—but it obviously cannot last. But the question remains about what will happen once they end up going their separate ways.

Even Sciamma’s most devoted fans may find themselves startled by what she has come up with here.

Like many of the films debuting at this year’s Berlinale, Petite Maman was shot under pandemic conditions that necessarily reduced the size of the production, at least in terms of obvious physical elements like actors and locations. And yet, while I suspect that the shelf life of many of those films may prove to be brief (since the most interesting things about them tend to be the circumstances surrounding their productions), Petite Maman will no doubt prove to be one of the few to stand the test of time. It’s one that I can see being made in exactly the same way even if things were otherwise normal. In fact, its surface slightness may even work to its advantage, because viewers may go in expecting a trifle and being shocked with just how deep and meaningful it really is.

There have been plenty of stories involving people who get a chance to either see a beloved deceased relative again or encounter their parents when they were youngsters themselves. In most cases, these efforts have milked the premise for either broad comedy or pathos. But Sciamma cannily avoids those approaches. (There’s blessedly no labored explanation for what is happening to gum things up.) Instead, she focuses on the friendship that develops between Nelly and the young Marion—making pancakes and improvising a mystery drama with startling intensity—and shows Nelly getting a better understanding of her mother without overly belaboring the point. There are heavier matters at hand, of course, but Sciamma handles them in a smart and efficient manner that gives them their due.

Every aspect of Petite Maman—from Sciamma’s beautifully nuanced screenplay and direction to the extraordinary performances from the two young leads—is handled with such beauty, care, and grace. Even Sciamma’s most devoted fans may find themselves startled by what she has come up with here. This is no mere toss-off designed to show what can be accomplished while working under COVID-era restrictions. It’s a film whose heart and emotional pull are as large as its scale is small. It reconfirms, not that such a thing was necessary, that Céline Sciamma is one of the major filmmakers working in the world today.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.