Petite Maman has a Childlike Naïveté, with Sleight of Hand Complexity, Film Companion

Writer & Director: Celine Sciamma

Cast: Josephine Sanz, Gabriella Sanz, Nina Meurisse

Streaming on: Mubi

Spoilers ahead…

A remarkable scene of touching tenderness early on in Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman subtly sets the stage for the magic realist twist that awaits us. Eight year old Nelly is being driven by her mother, Marion, in a car, and the scene comes right after the passing away of Nelly’s grandmother (Marion’s mother). They are driving to her grandmother’s place, where Marion spent her girlhood. Marion is grieving, still processing the void left by her passing (if not necessarily showing it). But Nelly senses her mother’s grief (while dealing with her own). Somewhere, she realises that her mother is in need of her mother and for a moment, she provides her that comforting and love as she feeds her chips and juice, extending her hands from the backseat. Marion’s expressions in closeup reveal the child in her –  a little restless when Nelly delays her feeding, satisfied once fed. The mother will soon become the best friend, as Nelly will meet a girl her age whose name also is Marion, and whose hut in the woods will resemble the one her mum had built when she was a little girl, and whose house will be identical to the one they are heading to: her grandmother’s place. They will become playmates, and maybe even quasi lovers, when Nelly role plays as a man and little Marion as a “beautiful” woman. That they are played by twin sisters (Josephine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz) only deepens the fluidity that Sciamma is aiming for, an intergenerational blurring of boundaries between the women in the family and a mysterious, invisible sisterhood that binds them. It’s almost as if in order to become best friends with her Petite Maman, Nelly first needed to become her mother, so as to dissolve the hierarchical distance.  

One of the triumphs of Sciamma’s film is how it refuses to treat Nelly’s excursions as a fantasy. The strange events unfold so plainly that you don’t know where where reality ends and daydreaming begins.

Nelly shows an inquisitiveness about her mother’s childhood from the beginning, perhaps triggered by the scene in the car. Marion gives only sketchy details – she too used to collect stones from the woods and keep them in the house; she puts her to sleep by invoking the black panther, phantasmagoric visions of which blend with delicate shadows cast by trees outside the window, an old trick that her mother had used when she was Nelly’s age. And when she wakes up in the middle of the night, her and Marion have a conversation about being unable to say last goodbyes as life’s great cruelty. When she wakes up next morning, Marion is gone abruptly (leaving Nelly with her father, a plot development that seems somewhat self-serving), but neither is Nelly tumbling into a rabbit hole nor is she windswept to Oz – she is having breakfast cereals as usual in the naturalistic environs of the same house she had gone to sleep in. 

Petite Maman has a Childlike Naïveté, with Sleight of Hand Complexity, Film Companion

It won’t be completely inaccurate to describe Petite Maman as a kind of Back to the Future that plays like a French film, with its European arthouse aesthetics morphing into genre mindfuck. One of the triumphs of Sciamma’s film is how it refuses to treat Nelly’s excursions as a fantasy. The strange events unfold so plainly that you don’t know where reality ends and daydreaming begins. (The camera choices from the beginning makes us feel that we are watching a child’s point of view, shooting them in ways that make them fill the frame). ‘Child’s eye view’ is a term we often use to describe such films but Sciamma goes all the way with what that term could mean cinematically and dramatically. She drops a bomb on the audience when in a crucial scene, she makes Nelly’s father meet little Marion – or make little Marion meet her future husband – dispelling any notion that what we are watching is all a dream. And really, strangely, you never for once think of it as a dream as you watch the film. You simply play along. 

It’s worth noting that Nelly spots little Marion in the woods, who, like the protagonist in Sciamma’s Tomboy (2012) experiences the serene, tranquil pleasures of a forest breeze. The scene points at the centrality of nature in Sciamma’s filmography and celebrate the profound effect it has on a child’s mind. Where in Tomboy it appears a rite of passage for the protagonist (appearing before and after she undergoes the humiliation of being exposed as a girl who was pretending to be a boy), in Petite Maman it becomes a playground for imagination, or re imagination, the backyard where miracles happen and where the first seeds of creativity are sown.

Petite Maman has a childlike naïveté, with sleight of hand complexity. There is an element of play – and role-play – in its ingenuous premise and Sciama explores it in every way possible. She gives us moments like the one in which Marion shows Nelly her doll and tells her that she imagines it as her child, like girls that age often do, and the scene is fascinating enough for its eerie blend of past and future, imaginary and real. But Sciamma also makes the doll a boy, a detail that suggests an uncomfortable truth about deeply ingrained sexism. But the fun and games never stop. Like when Nelly listens to music on her headphones and Marion is curious about “the music of the future”. As Nelly transfers her headphones and Marion listens to it, we see the delight on her face but don’t hear the music. Only in the next scene do we cut to the woods, and the music in question is synth-pop – sound of the past since the 80s, and music of the future ever since.  

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