Although her most successful film, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is about adult female desire, Celine Sciamma has spent her career crafting stories about childhood. Beginning with the early queer cult classics “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy” and now with the surreal, intergenerational drama “Petite Maman,” the filmmaker has shown how the genre can be a place of innovation, as well as deeply personal storytelling.
“I think the greatest tales of childhood have been made by queer writers,” Sciamma told NBC News. “And, the thing is, it’s not about only telling that story or that perspective. It’s about the language of cinema. That’s what queer writers do. They have to invent the language to tell their story.”
In “Petite Maman,” Sciamma invents an enchanting world in which time-travel brings a family closer in fantastical ways. There, mothers and daughters play together as girls, and granddaughters get a second chance to say goodbye.
At the center of the film is 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her maternal grandmother. When the film opens, Nelly is saying goodbye to the residents of her grandmother’s nursing home — holding on to the woman’s walking stick as a memento — before she and her parents drive to her mother’s childhood home to pack up the rest of her grandmother’s belongings. But her mother (Nina Meurisse), for reasons that remain unspoken, leaves Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) alone soon after they arrive.
Coinciding with her departure, Nelly meets a young playmate in the woods surrounding the house. And, almost instantly, she understands that this girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) — who bears an uncanny resemble to Nelly and shares her mother’s name — is her mother.
Marion invites Nelly to her nearby home, which turns out to be a retro replica of Nelly’s grandmothers house, down to the kitchen wallpaper that was painted over in redecorating. Then, Nelly meets Marion’s mother, who uses a walking stick identical to that of Nelly’s grandmother. And the strangers are suddenly, wordlessly bonded, doting on each other in the way that old acquaintances do.
As the two girls form a close, short-lived friendship, Nelly sees behind the veil of these women’s lives, which are so essential to hers, before she has to once again say goodbye.
‘To grow old together’
Unlike her young heroine, Sciamma lost her grandmothers well into her adulthood. Her paternal grandmother, Carla Sciamma, who was a film lover, died shortly after “Petite Maman” premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Her maternal grandmother, Marie-Paule Chiron, died eight years ago, at the age of 103, when Sciamma was in her mid-30s.
Her bond with these women — and especially her relationship with them later in life — was the inspiration for the film, in which time is collapsed and two generations meet on equal footing.
“That’s the beautiful thing about growing old with grandmothers in your life: At some point, you reach another level of discussion and meaning and understanding and adventure,” Sciamma said.
“When they were gone, I was the age that they had already had my parents,” Sciamma said. “It’s not a given that you’re going to do that. It’s an opportunity that life gives you — as [with] friendship and a lot of things — to grow old together,” she said.
Their influence on Sciamma pervades the film thematically and in more literal ways, including the precious walking stick, which belongs to Marie-Paule, and the design of the dwelling that serves as a kind of spaceship in the film’s time-travel plot.
In the film, the house is a charming, somewhat disorienting space with no clear end and beginning, almost as if rooms and hallways exist independently from one another. That’s because Sciamma borrowed elements from each of her grandmothers’ residences, one of lived in a house and the other in an apartment.
“The set has been designed as a real synthesis of both my grandmothers’ interiors,” Sciamma said, conjuring scenes where the girls make pancakes in Carla’s kitchen and travel up and down Marie-Paule’s long corridor flanked by rooms.
‘An intimate thriller’
“Petite Maman” is full of these embedded personal details and hidden dynamics, which reveal themselves bit by bit, despite its short, 72-minute runtime.
Sciamma describes the film as “an intimate thriller” because, true to a child’s experience, Nelly is constantly trying to decipher what is happening to her family. And the audience, who only sees what Nelly does, is left in the same suspense.
This is felt perhaps most acutely in the early scenes, before Nelly’s mother leaves the house, when there are hints that things aren’t going well between the parents — sleeping separately, solo walks, pointed comments — but, if it’s talked about, it’s done behind closed doors.
“It’s true to life: to be very aware of how things are between adults or your parents, but not knowing at all. What is the friction between those two people, whose love story is supposed to be linked to your existence?” Sciamma said.
It’s only through her playmate and the house that’s been spared 20 years of life and heartbreak that Nelly finds solace and an escape from her and her mother’s grief.
Late in the film, Nelly finally tells Marion the truth about their relationship, which Marion accepts with quiet knowing. Afterward, in one of the final scenes, the two girls talk about the sudden departure, and Nelly speculates that maybe she’s the source of her mother’s frequent sadness — as children often do.
In one of the many scenes in which the Sanz twins have a gravitas that is almost otherworldly, young Marion responds, “You didn’t invent my sadness.”
That moment hangs in the air, both sad and hopeful, as the girls say their goodbyes.
“Films with kids at the center, writing for kids, puts you in a position where you can be very brave, very bold,” Sciamma said of her creating a film that revolves around young characters. “They are the most contemporary audience that you can get, so you can be really radical, and you can try new things.”
Sciamma credits “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — the 2019 romantic period piece that quickly became an international hit and eventually brought a wider audience to her work — with giving her the confidence to embrace making something new and radical.
“I could have never made a film like that before ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’” she said of “Petite Maman.” “I definitely benefited from the confidence that I was handed by cinephiles, feminists, moviegoers all over the world — that you can trust films to have an impact.”
The product is a brief, incisive and bewildering film that lingers long after the credits roll.
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