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.

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