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Petite Maman

Director: Céline Sciamma (France). Year of Release: 2022

A nursing home. A young girl is saying goodbye one by one to all of the inhabitants and staff. She enters a room in which there is a woman, presumably her mother. The girl asks “can I take her walking stick?” Her mother nods. Nelly has lost her grandmother, Marion has lost her mother, and neither of them is dealing with the loss exceptionally well.

Marion drives Nelly to her mother’s old house, where they have to sort through gran’s stuff and take away what’s worth keeping. As they drive, Nelly pops sweets into Marion’s mouth. They often communicate without saying much. Nelly wants to know more about the house where her mother grew up. She is particularly interested in stories that Marion has told her about a house made of branches in the wood which Marion had built when she was around Nelly’s age.

Nelly’s father tends to appear when she’s having breakfast. He seems supportive but not central to her life. When she wants to say that she wishes she could have said goodbye to her grandmother properly, it is her mother she talks to. One day dad tells her that her mother has left, and her absence appears to be indefinite. You get the feeling that, following the death of her mother, there’s only so many childhood memories that Marion can deal with.

Nelly is left on her own with he thoughts. She takes a bat and ball on elastic, but the elastic breaks and the ball soars into the woods. So, instead she goes for a walk where she meets a girl around her own age who looks remarkably like her (the two girls are played by twin sisters). The girl is gathering branches and sticks, and together they start building a house. Later in the film, the girl says that her name is Marion.

As a rainstorm breaks they go to Marion’s home to get dry and find a change of clothes. It looks remarkably like Nelly’s granny’s house. Nelly asks to go to the toilet, and uses the opportunity to nose around. She comes across a sleeping woman in exactly the same place that her mother slept in their house. Later we meet Marion’s mother, who uses a walking stick and doesn’t like Marion to go out much on account of a chronic disease. An important hospital appointment is imminent.

Both Nelly and Marion are only children, and although they say that they regret not having any siblings, they are pretty self-sufficient. They are, as Roddy Frame said All Those Years Ago, not lonely but alone. Or, as Nelly says, “Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no-one to tell them to.” As this shows, they are also both remarkably precocious. Their reaction to the fact that their parents have effectively abandoned them is to act as if they were adults.

Petite Maman is a slight film, and I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism. It is a refreshing when a film says what it has to say and then closes shop when it’s done without outstaying its welcome. Having said that, I can’t share the euphoria of some critics, who see it as a masterpiece. It doesn’t compare, say, with some of director Céline Sciamma’s previous films like Girlhood or Portrait Of A Lady on Fire. It doesn’t share their ambition and scope, but nor should it have to.

For all this, Petite Maman is prepared to address some Important Issues like grief, isolation and the difficulty of family relationships. When Nelly seems to needs maternal help, her mother is too overwhelmed by her own problems to be of much use and so, we must assume, Nelly creates an alternative reality (other interpretations of what the film is supposed to mean are available).

Yet Petite Maman does not blame Nelly’s parents for neglecting their child. They are clearly overwhelmed by grief, and who knows what else, and are just as needy of external care. It is not always clear whether Petite Maman is showing a child’s story from an adult’s point of view or the opposite – throughout the film, the roles of adults and children are regularly interchanged. This sounds like it could quickly turn extremely irritating, but makes sense in the context of the film.

Petite is a fable, a fairy tale – it does not tell us how much “really happened”, because in a sense it is all something that Sciamma has made up. Instead the film makes a virtue of the fact that, if you just report what is supposed to happen, much of it does not make sense. There is a sort of magical realism in it which asks if a plot that corresponds to expected logic is really that important?

Sciamma tells a story, and she tells it well. What exactly the story is, and what it’s supposed to mean is, at least in part, down to us, the audience. This is a film that respects our intelligence – both emotional and intellectual. It may not be an action packed night out on the town, but it is a satisfying aperitif to make us anticipate Sciamma’s next big film, when the lifting of Corona restrictions will hopefully allow her to once more extend her reach.

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