Oct 16, 2021

24FPS @ LFF: Petite Maman

Dir: Celine Sciamma
“I came from the path behind you”, says 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz), just after telling her friend Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) that, in the future, Marion will be her mother. Like many of the lines in Celine Sciamma’s exquisite screenplay for her fifth film, it’s layered with meaning; Nelly literally comes from the path behind Marion, from her Grandmother’s house, which she and her parents are clearing out after her death. It’s also a line about how Nelly, and all children to some degree, follows a path cut for her by her mother.

Four of Sciamma’s five directorial films, and the two features she’s written for other directors, fall broadly into coming of age cinema. I’m not sure any modern filmmaker has managed such a consistent, varied and nuanced exploration of the genre. While it hasn’t got the spectacular effects and the high sci-fi concept, the film Petite Maman most recalls for me in spirit is, perhaps surprisingly, Back to the Future. That film, ultimately, is about meeting your own parents and realising that if you had just been a couple of guys at school, you probably wouldn’t have got on with your Dad. Petite Maman takes the same basic concept of meeting your parent at your own age, but in this case, Nelly and Marion become fast friends. While the film doesn’t have her state it in the moment, it’s clear from one subtle shot of a particular, almost talismanic, prop that Nelly figures out quickly what is going on. 

Initially, Nelly and Young Marion are on totally equal footing, there’s an innocence and purity to their play together, spending much of their time in the woods, building a hut that Nelly had asked about earlier in the film. Later, when the relationship is clear, Sciamma uses the carefree feeling of these scenes to contrast with the older, clearly more fragile, Marion (Nina Meurisse), for instance, it doesn’t seem like the silly, playful, way that the girls make pancakes for Marion’s eighth birthday party is something Nelly will have done with the older version of her mother. 

In the present day scenes, there are some beautiful observations of how much Nelly cares for her mother; feeding her crisps and hugging her from the back seat as they drive away from the home where Marion’s mother passed away. It’s something that, while present day Marion clearly loves her daughter, the younger version seems more able to express. There is so much to be said about how delicately and how beautifully Sciamma and her young stars paint this relationship, but perhaps the simplest moments are the most moving, like the image of 8-year-old Marion, blowing out her birthday candles as she looks between her mother and her future daughter. It’s a gorgeous, truly magical, family portrait that sums up the film's magical realism perfectly.

Celine Sciamma is one of the truly great filmmakers working today, and Petite Maman is another gem. Thanks to cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot Portrait of a Lady on Fire for Sciamma, this is a beautiful film. The scenes between the young Marion and Nelly have a golden autumn feel, while the scenes back at the present day house emphasise the emptiness, especially after present day Marion takes off, leaving Nelly with her Dad. The dialogue doesn’t always sound like 8-year-olds talking, but some of the most childlike moments are the film’s most indelible, like Nelly wanting to go to sleep “to get to tomorrow”, which leads immediately to one of my favourite cuts in any recent film, carrying that idea through directly.  In 72 minutes, Sciamma manages to convey great depth and nuance, to fully explore this mother/daughter relationship, but do so with disarming simplicity. 

I think I need to see it again (and again) to appreciate all of its layers properly, but this is clearly one of the very best films of 2021 and yet another landmark in Sciamma’s thus far flawless career.

Oct 12, 2021

24FPS @ LFF: Playground

Dir: Laura Wandel

For seven and nine-year-old siblings Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and Abel (Günter Duret), the school playground isn’t the friendliest place. Bigger boys pick on Abel, and the association, as well as their closeness, blows back on both him and Nora, making things worse for both of them.

Playground is perhaps better served by its original title: Une Monde (A World). A child’s world is, in many ways, fundamentally different to that of an adult, and Laura Wandel goes out of her way to create that world and to bring us into it. The camera is always placed at Nora’s height. Adults are often seen as legs and have to bend down into the frame to interact with the children. This immediately places us with the children, having to remember what our perspective was like. 

Visually, Wandel also uses close-ups a lot, making the backgrounds of shots blurry. This, I think, is a neat and effective way to suggest Nora’s development. At seven, she’s just arriving at the stage where she can see beyond herself, but the blurriness suggests there’s still a shallow focus there; she can empathise with her brother, but her reasoning (“You won’t stand up for yourself, so I told Dad”) is still simplistic, and initially, she can’t see how that might have unintended consequences. It’s telling that the adults we see in focus are the ones Nora feels closest to; her Dad, a stay at home parent, and her favourite teacher, through whom the script hits its only bump, perhaps leaning a little too hard on the saintly teacher trope à la Miss Honey.

These interactions with the film’s few adults aside, Playground stays resolutely among its young cast, observing the day-to-day of primary school politics and interaction. The bullying we see doesn’t seem motivated by anything particular, just that the bigger boys sense some kind of weakness they can pick at in Abel, especially when his younger sister—again too naive to read the situation the way her brother can—tries to defend him. It’s even more affecting when, having gone to a teacher, we see Nora sitting in on a meeting as the boys are made to apologise to Abel. The whole scene plays on Maya Vanderbeque’s face, and we can see that Nora now understands that this is only going to make things worse.

The way this all affects Nora and Abel’s relationships with each other and with their own friends is incredibly realistically written, seldom more so than in a heartbreaking series of scenes as Nora tries to get invited to the birthday party of a girl who, until a few weeks ago, was her closest friend at school. This and the way Abel tries to get back in the good graces of the bigger kids by turning into one of them are so well observed by Wandel and her young stars that were it not for the purposeful stylisation of her camerawork you could confuse moments of the film for documentary.

For me, the filmmaker Wandel most recalls here is Nils Malmros, whose brilliant coming of age films are some of the best the genre has ever produced. In particular, this one seems to look to his debut, the autobiographical Lars Ole, 5C, for inspiration. There is little higher praise I can offer than to say that Playground can stand alongside that film and other classics about childhood and growing up. 

This is an outstanding debut. It's structurally excellent, with a beautiful rhyme to its opening and closing shots. More than that, it's also an incredibly articulate film that has a lot to say about children’s experiences at school and, through some of the things we hear them say that must be parroted or misinterpreted from their parents, at home as well. It's too unblinking and too serious to speak to the children it's about, but it feels like it comes from a place of deep understanding for and of them. It's one of the best films of 2021, and marks Wandel out as a huge talent to watch.

Oct 11, 2021

24FPS @ LFF: All About My Sisters

Dir: Wang Qiong

Starting in 2015, 22-year-old Wang Qiong picked up her camera and began filming her family, focusing on her younger sister Jin. The story she tells across this nearly three hour canvas is about a family that, with two daughters and despite China’s one child policy desperate for a son, first tried to abort and then gave away Jin to one of her uncles, who raised her as his own. Just over 20 years later, Jin is a young mother herself and has an understandably difficult relationship with her parents (who she calls Auntie and Uncle). Qiong’s camera documents their relationship, as well as digging into a family history of abortion and abandonment.

All About My Sisters is, from the start and frequently throughout, an uncomfortable watch. It begins with Jin asking her sister what the point of telling her story is, but as that story unfolds, whether Jin knows it or not, it becomes clear that the point is not only that it is fascinating a devastatingly emotional from a singular point of view, but that Qiong uses it to unfold a critique of how the one child policy drove many people to act. Perhaps the toughest scene to watch is an interview with Jin and Qiong’s uncle, who was one of the local administrators of the policy, and recalls leaving two babies that he and his wife attempted to abort at 8 months out to die. His regret and remorse are clear, as is the implication that this was a routine part of life at the time, but it remains an horrific moment.

The film hammers home the results of the policy not just in moments like Qiong and her other sister Li’s memory of walking over a bridge to school and seeing the bodies of babies, all female, that had been abandoned to die but in a larger, and still prevalent, preference for male children, both at pregnancy and throughout their lives. What emerges is a picture of a society—or at least a section of society—that views women’s lives as almost purely transactional. There are discussions of how much the groom’s family should pay when Jin gets married, of how much families should gift when a woman gives birth to a male child rather than a female, and more besides. 

Watching Jin’s personal story is no easier. It seems clear that her abandonment has affected her both as a person generally and as a parent specifically (some of the scenes of her scolding her two-year-old son are very difficult to watch). Unsparing as Qiong’s camera is of her sister, it’s also sympathetic. She is consistently the family member noting, especially in a late conversation with their 13-year-old brother Sifan, that the situation isn’t Jin’s fault. Many of the questions she asks their brother seem a bit challenging for someone of his age to process, especially when she asks if he thinks Jin was abandoned so that he could be born; that’s a lot to put on him, but it’s a question that hangs heavy on the film and over that relationship, which despite that seems, for much of the film, the closest Jin has with any of her biological family.

For all the moments that Jin is unsympathetic, the film strives to understand the impact of how she grew up on her. She talks about the time she did spend living with her parents and her sisters as feeling “like I was a cleaner in your home”, and the way she is treated by her parents now seems defined more by financial support (an investment in a shop, which then ties her to them) than by anything emotional. Judgments and words are harsh, though to be fair this is not just towards her, at one point her father tells Sifan “you shouldn’t have been born” after he gets in trouble at school. Again though, everything that Jin’s parents are really invested in about her seems driven by money, little emotion comes through, even on her wedding day. The ending is tinged with both sadness at the fact Jin doesn’t seem to be able to find a way forward with her parents and at least a little hope at where it finds her going, and it would be nice to have an update on how she and her family are doing now.

All of Wang Qiong’s points are worthy and often devastatingly made, but it’s fair to say that all of them are made many, many times over and that by the third hour of the film it’s hard to see that she’s adding much new to the argument she’s making. This is an insightful film, and a promising debut for the young director / producer / cinematographer / editor. Next time, it might benefit her to take on fewer jobs herself, as another voice might have focused the film down a bit more, making its points land all the harder by concentrating them. There is much here that could be tightened, from reducing some of the repetitious nature of the sequences to simply trimming back some incidental shots that don’t add a lot to the narrative or the argument. I can see that there is a point to making this an exhausting watch, but after a while, it does dull the emotional punch.