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TIFF 2021 Review: Petite Maman – “It feels just like being wrapped in a warm hug”

Image Courtesy of TIFF

Back in 2019, Céline Sciamma dazzled audiences with the beautiful, expansive, and heartbreaking love story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.  Her follow up, Petite Maman is a quainter affair, but no less effective at depicting the power of female relationships, albeit a completely different kind.  It’s also extremely difficult to discuss without spoiling its premise and I highly recommend you watch this film knowing as little as possible.  As spoiler free a review as possible follows.

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Petite Maman is told completely from the perspective of 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) whom we meet walking through the rooms of a nursing home saying ‘au revoir’ to their residents.  She returns to her mother, (Nina Meurisse) who is packing up the room of Nelly’s recently deceased grandmother.  Nelly’s mother is understandably upset at the loss, and Nelly is sad that she didn’t know her previous goodbye to her grandmother was the last one.  But then, you can never really know.

Nelly, her mother and father return to the family home where Nelly’s mother grew up.  While they go about packing up the house, Nelly starts exploring the woods surrounding it, where as a child her mother once constructed a hut, a tree fort of sorts, that she had told her daughter about.  It’s here she meets another girl just her age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).  The two are so similar that it’s like looking in a mirror.  The two young girls strike up an immediate and easy friendship in the days leading up to Marion going into hospital for an operation.  But, there’s more at play here that Nelly smartly discovers which will eventually open her mind and heart in ways she couldn’t see coming, affecting her connections with her family.

To say that Petite Maman is a more intimate film than Portrait of a Lady on Fire is saying something, but it’s quieter and cozier in feel.  There are no vast, breathtaking ocean landscapes here, instead traded for the interior of the forest and one small outdated home.  Yet there are similarities as one would expect – lack of a score (save for one scene, used with effect) and minimalistic dialogue from the script that Sciamma also penned.  Every word of dialogue is precisely chosen, and there are a couple particular moments that took my breath away.  Petite Maman truly rests on its characters and the exploration of their innermost emotions and growth.

As such, Sciamma excels, and is lucky to find her ‘petite’ leading lady in Joséphine as well as her sister Gabrielle.  Both are able to make you smile and break your heart during the course of this enchanting story.  Their relationship, as it grows, brings about an examination of platonic and familial love no less intimate or important than the love story portrayed in Portrait.  But this film also stresses the importance of knowing our family and its history, highlighting the delicate and complicated nature of the mother-daughter bond in a unique way.  With a run time of just 70 minutes Sciamma manages to pack that emotional punch in a film that never overstays its welcome.  Petite Maman is a tale told with such attention to detail, such understanding of the intricacies of the relationships it portrays that in its end, despite the melancholy and grief that also accompany the story, it feels just like being wrapped in a warm hug – or may make you want to give one to a family member.

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