Petite Maman – Film Review
by Frank L.
Directed by Céline Sciamma
WriterC – éline Sciamma
Stars – Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Part of the French Film Festival at the IFI Dublin
The film begins with an eight-year-old girl Nelly (Josephine Sanz) moving along a corridor, saying goodbye to the elderly residents of a nursing home. In one room, her mother (Nina Meurisse) is clearing out the contents as Nelly’s grandmother, the former occupant, has died.
The film then switches to the grandmother’s house where a similar task is at hand. Nelly, along with her mother and father (Stephane Varupenne) are clearing out the contents of the old house. The mother talks about her childhood and a treehouse in the surrounding woods. Nelly goes out into the woods and comes across a partially-built tree house and encounters a young girl Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks like her double. The two actors are twins in real life. Marion asks Nelly for help with the treehouse. Quickly they develop a bond. Meanwhile, the mother is overcome by the emotion of clearing out the house and leaves the father to look after Nelly. The friendship between Nelly and her mysterious new friend Marion intensifies.
Céline Sciamma, who directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in 2019, observes beautifully how these two young girls engage with each other as strangers but rapidly as close friends. There is an air of mystery about them. What Sciamma has created is a fairy tale where memory and childhood are intertwined. You are an outsider in their fantasy world. It is not clear who Marion is but she appears to be Nelly’s mother in childhood. Marion’s house close by seems to be a carbon copy of Nelly’s grandmother’s house. As an adult, you have to make sense of it all.
Sciamma directs the two Sanz sisters with a delicate touch. Their dialogue has silent pauses. They do not interrupt each other. The camera is held at their level so you do not consider them as children. They may appear small but emotionally they are adults in a complex world where people die like the grandmother or leave, like the mother.
This is a film where it is necessary to enter into the world of childhood and let Nelly and Marion be your guides. It is beautifully realised in all its simplicity, which is gentle and yet, unsettling.