Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman is so excellent, strong, moving, and soul-stirring that you want to tightly hug it. I can describe it as a time-travel movie, but I fear maybe that would plant an impression of it being CGI-ridden sci-fi or something similar to a Christopher Nolan mind-bender. Modern blockbusters have conditioned us to imagine sci-fi in this manner. But Sciamma does her job without cheap special effects or any insane exposition dumps. There was a time when filmmakers presented magic on the big screen through simple jump cuts (say, a horse will "transform" into a dog in an instant). Petite Maman relies on this basic, neat technique to move forward. We see a girl sitting at the table and think she is still at her friend's place, but find out that she is back at her own house. A man flips the switch in the bedroom, and the movie smoothly segues to the next scene in the woods.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma proved she possesses a personal, artistic touch. Her film was not just well-made, but it also contained a beating heart. Petite Maman retains this quality as the director returns with yet another splendid, exquisite, and intimate tale. Science fiction fans and purists might scratch their heads over the time travel logic and its consequences. However, the movie is not interested in being loyal to the rules of science. It casts a tender and uncomplicated view over its world. The past and the present become two destinations on opposite paths. One can just walk in and out of these two spaces without requiring a machine or a car.
Any kid or adult would squeal or freak out if they exchanged places with Nelly (Joséphine Sanz). Why, characters who first encounter time travel always react with gasps and wide eyes! Nelly, too, is shocked, though she does not respond to the situation with exaggerated gestures. A slight movement in her eyes tells us that someone familiar to her has walked into the room, and that person should not be there. Instead of immediately informing her father (Stéphane Varupenne) about what she had witnessed, Nelly – being a precocious child – decides to comprehend the situation and deal with it as per her maturity and intelligence.
Notice the scene where Nelly goes to Marion's (Gabrielle Sanz) house for the first time. The latter takes the former's sweater and feeds her. It's a sweet moment, considering the whole picture of how they are related to each other. (This Marion is the eight-year-old version of Nelly's mother). In a movie where the past and the present merge and fall into the same timeline to become indistinguishable, casting two almost identical faces comes across as smart. There were moments when I was unable to differentiate between Nelly and Marion.
By hanging out with the younger Marion, Nelly sees a new side of her mother. I am sure adult Marion shares a strong bond with her daughter, but I doubt she would engage in mischiefs like spilling soup from the mouth. Most of us imagine how our parents must have been during their childhood. Nelly gets to experience that particular moment. Petite Maman, ultimately, is about saying goodbye and moving on. Nelly mentions to her mother that she didn't get to properly say goodbye to her grandmother (the opening has her bidding adieu to elderly people). By getting the chance to visit the past, she receives the opportunity to give a proper farewell.
Sound plays a crucial role in immersing us in this spellbinding world. You can hear the rustling of leaves, the chatter of the birds, and the voice of the calm winds making the trees dance. In this natural setting, when Nelly walks into the woods, you feel as if you are exploring the environment together. By the end, you are so absorbed that it pains to say goodbye to Petite Maman. It hurts to the point that you consider rewatching the film from the start. But soon, you are hit with another painful realisation that no matter how many times you click the play button, the movie will always come to a halt. You close your eyes, take a deep breath, and move on.