A fairytale, a ghost story, a spare meditation on grief, loss, motherhood and the delicate mysteries of childhood — Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman is all these things adding up to a deeply moving, spellbinding film.
If Sciamma’s sumptuous masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) was a layered, novelistic romance, her follow up is as taut and precisely crafted as a short story. The premise is simple: eight-year-old Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) grandmother has recently passed away and Nelly and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), along with Nelly’s dad (Stéphane Varupenne) must clean out the remote house in which Marion spent her childhood. It is a task full of sorrow, and suddenly Marion disappears. leaving Nelly and her father alone to complete the job by themselves.
One day, Nelly ventures into the surrounding woods where she meets another eight year-old, a girl named Marion (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister) who lives in a nearby house that is identical to Nelly’s mother’s childhood home.
Sciamma and her Portrait cinematographer Claire Mathon create an atmosphere both realist and otherworldly; Nelly is often drenched in blue light or shot with a celestial golden glow above her head. There is an air of mystery, an eerie but elegant strangeness to the story. Yet the girls’ easy friendship is natural and lovely and believable. This unsentimental, magnificent film evokes tenderness and heartbreak in delving into what children can never know about a parent and what a gift it is to imagine glimpsing that precious unknowable, even for a moment.