Dazzling, delicate ‘Petite Maman’ brims with tenderness

Image from film Petite Maman
Lillies Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Girlhood is a special world, lush with soft edges and magical thrills. Its marvel lies in the delicate bluebells surrounding the fictional Anne Shirley, the maple syrup candy for the girls of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the upright piano and pastel ribbons in Renoir’s “Two Young Girls at the Piano.” Any disillusionment that may bubble up in adolescence or adulthood stays put in the shadows. In girlhood, life itself bears buoyancy.

From writer-director Céline Sciamma, “Petite Maman” is aglow with youth’s openhearted wonder. The film captures childhood through the perspective of Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), an eight-year-old who often sports brown corduroy overalls and knitted blue sweaters. Following the death of her grandmother, Nelly helps her Mère and Père, played by Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne, clean up her mother’s childhood home.

Liminality washes over “Petite Maman,” and there’s an understanding that what unfolds in this film is transient and bound to pass. The film explores Nelly and her mother’s relationship and their earnest efforts to comfort each other in the wake of loss across generational separation. 

Characters are often shot from behind or with their gaze downturned, as if the camera itself is sensitive and self-conscious about its gaze on the vulnerable family. When Nelly’s parents embrace, for instance, the gesture hints at an uneasiness between them but the camera doesn’t dwell on it. Specific details are made superfluous in a movie guided by pathos and a child’s perspective. These few days in the small house are fleeting, the early stepping stones leading to a different form of grief that Nelly will understand when she’s older. Yet, the precarity of this period endows it with preciousness. 

Autumn vignettes the small house and the neighboring forest where Nelly often spends her time. Sciamma’s camera is tender to depict what Keats called “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” For Nelly, the forest serves as an illusory kind of “green world,” akin to the transformative woods in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but much gentler. The images are like portraiture. Sciamma colors the sylvan landscape in burnt oranges and dapples of honey-soft sunlight. It teems with crunchy leaves and quietude.

One day, Nelly’s mother goes away, and Nelly takes this time to explore the peculiar playground until she encounters another little girl (Gabrielle Sanz). The other girl’s name is Marion, just like Nelly’s mother, and she lives outside of the forest in what Nelly realizes is a furnished, inhabited version of her grandmother’s house.

Magical realism in “Petite Maman” is entwined with childhood and, as such, goes unquestioned. Nelly doesn’t understand why she can meet Marion, but she also doesn’t want to press her luck and ask why. Who cares if the details are fuzzy when it’s brought her the treasure of Marion’s friendship? Admittedly, the collapse of past and present gets a bit muddled, but it’s an awkward splash in an otherwise easy gondola ride down the canals of childhood. Reason falls to the periphery when relationships are too precious to lose.

Sciamma is no stranger to the subject of childhood, which lies at the center of some of her previous films, such as “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy.” Yet, the subject takes a more delicate, imaginative shape in “Petite Maman.” Pain is bittersweet rather than devastating, charged with empathy. Sadness seems to wobble and vacillate between Nelly and her mother in their heart-wrenching efforts to make each other happy.

As young girls, however, Nelly and Marion understand each other easily, and the film emphasizes the beauty and rarity of this ephemeral perspective. It’s enthralled by the games girls play, the ways they eat, the cadence of their laughter, the stories they invent, the places they make their own.

Without haste or force or indulgence, “Petite Maman” kindles an unsuspecting intimacy with the audience. The emotional attachment flares up in unexpected moments — the ripple of laughter when the two girls make pancakes, the pricked tears when Nelly invites herself into her mother’s arm. In its deceptive simplicity, the film sneaks up on you, tugs at your sleeve and tucks itself into your chest, making a home there.

Maya Thompson is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].