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LFF 2021 Review: Petite Maman – “Utterly charming”

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Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quieter and more playful film. But despite its lean running time of 72 minutes — Petite Maman is a subtle, but captivating modern fable on grief, loneliness, and motherhood.

Sciamma uses the restrictions of shooting during Covid-19 to create an atmospheric film with a woodland setting and a beautiful Autumnal colour palette. The colours and the melancholy of the season reflect the mood of the film.

For eight-year-old Nelly (Gabrielle Sanz), whose point of view we experience the film through — it’s a time of big change too. Her grandmother has just died, and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse) is struggling to deal with her grief and the practicality of packing up her childhood home. Shortly after they arrive, Marion leaves to go back to the family home, leaving Nelly and her Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish up without her.

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It’s a superb central performance by Gabrielle Sanz who plays Nelly with a pragmatism beyond her eight years. She is tiny empath, feeling her mum’s sadness, and gradually understanding that Marion’s emotional pain began long before her bereavement. While her dad packs up the house, Nelly goes exploring, first in the pocket-door hidden cupboards of the house to dig out Marion’s childhood toys, and then to the woodland just outside.

Nelly’s adventures take her to a mini woodland hut in a clearing. Her solitude is interrupted by a cheery, waving stranger, who bears a striking resemblance to Nelly – is this a dopplegänger? or someone she dreamed up? She isn’t quite sure, yet. Apparently unphased, Nelly quickly discovers the girl (played by Gabrielle’s twin sister Josephine) is also called Marion.

Eight-year-old Marion convinces Nelly to help her to finish off her little hut, and the pair become fast friends. It’s clear that this Marion, like Nelly has problems at home too. What unfolds from their meeting is fantastical, perhaps even supernatural. But it’s treated naturalistically thanks to cinematographer Claire Mathon’s camera work, as well as a minimal score and Sciamma’s tight script. Miyazaki is an influence and it’s not hard to see — the film begins with a death, and the spectre of hereditary illness looms over both girls.

Petite Maman is utterly charming yet avoids mawkish sentimentality. The two girls laugh and play-act a detective story in Marion’s home — which looks an awful lot like Nelly’s Grandmother’s house. Marion is anxious about her upcoming operation, which is happening so that she won’t have to walk with a cane like her mother. Nelly helps take her mind off things, and a messy crêpe making scene that leaves them both in fits of giggles is pure joy.

Through this unusual, time-limited friendship (both girls realise it can only last as long it takes Nelly’s dad to finish the packing), Nelly begins to understand the girl her mum once was and starts seeing a way to connect with her again. “I come from the path behind you.” she says to petite Marion, it’s a poignant line that cuts to the heart of the story.

There are some low-key but beautifully observed father-daughter bonding moments too, like when Nelly decides it’s time for her dad’s beard to go. One small moment between them packs some emotional heft in a film that doesn’t go in for heavy dramatic beats. He doesn’t fully get what’s happening to Nelly in this moment, but he knows it’s important to her.

By suspending our disbelief in the impossible, we’re swept up in the connections between generations. Just as Miyazaki’s films like My Neighbour Totoro and When Marnie Was Here blend childhood imagination with difficult subjects — Petite Maman will spark intrigue and enchantment in audiences, regardless of age.

Petite Maman screened as part of LFF 2021, and will be released in the UK on 19 November, with a later release on MUBI on 4 February 2022.

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