Celina Sciamma’s latest is another emotionally powerful film
Despite having made films for more than a decade, it seems that Celine Sciamma is only being discovered now, after her breakout with Portait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Her filmmaking skill has been evident, however, with such affecting films as Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). Her latest is a follow-up to her biggest hit, and it delivers a quiet yet powerfully affecting story.
Petite Maman (2021) is told from the eyes of 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) who has recently lost her grandmother. She and her mother (Nina Meurisse), who is deeply affected by the loss, go to her grandmother’s house to help clean it out. During their stay, Nelly goes to play in the nearby forest and befriends another mysterious girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).
Sciamma has always enjoyed delving into some of the most emotionally taxing events of people’s lives, be it gender expression in Tomboy, puberty in Girlhood, forbidden love in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and with Petite Maman motherhood and grief. This mix of themes in the latter film might seem like an overburden for the film, but Sciamma makes the case that they are both interlinked in more ways than we imagine. Sciamma seeks to show the powerful recognition of seeing a parent as a person and equal. She does so in an incredibly affecting and simple way, almost as a fairytale, telling her narrative through the eyes of a child.
Admirably, Sciamma has not been a director who has equated runtime length with quality. Petite Maman is less than 1hr and 20 minutes long, and yet the immersive journey that the French director is able to lead you on is remarkable. As with many of her other films, Sciamma uses music sparingly, in fact only one song is played in the entire film, demonstrating that the ability to sink into viewers’ hearts is done with visual and filmmaking means alone. This demonstrates the true talent that Sciamma wields as a filmmaker, who is capable of patiently building her characters up inside a viewer’s hearts before she pulls an emotional finale on you. As such, while much of Petite Maman might seem to be slow, it is an intentional simmer that delivers such a beautiful ending that I spent the entire credits drying my tears.
Working with child actors can be quite a challenge for all involved. Sciamma took quite the risk by having her film rest on the shoulders of two young actresses Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz. Sciamma, however, shows her skill once again by getting spectacularly mature and calculated performances from each, Josephine in the lead role is particularly impressive, with a patience and rhythm that many adult actors would wish to have.
In the end, Petite Maman is a spectacular new film from Sciamma, who increasingly shows that she’s one of the most talented filmmakers working today. Her ability to build characters, story, and deliver such emotional overtures is admirable, to the point that one might think she’s showing off. Led by a fantastic child-performance and building up to an incredibly affecting finale, Petite Maman and its explorations of motherhood are a true gem.