Céline Sciamma: mother of invention

Céline Sciamma’s magical Petite maman is the tale of a young girl who comes face to face with her own mother as a small child. Here the director explains why the idea captivated her with the force of ancient mythology.

Updated: 18 February 2022

Sight and Sound
Céline Sciamma

 ► Petite maman is streaming on Mubi.

It doesn’t figure in her official filmography, but French writer-director Céline Sciamma once made a mystery thriller.

She directed it and played the lead role: “I was a detective going to this house and interrogating a baroness – I was doing my Peter Falk as Columbo.” Sciamma was ten or 11 when she made it, together with friends, in her home town of Cergy, near Paris.

As she describes it, this sounds very much like the genesis of her imagination as a filmmaker – and Sciamma says she has pretty much replicated that scenario in a moment of her latest film, Petite maman, in which two young girls amuse themselves by devising a drama.

What’s unusual in Petite maman is not just that the girls look uncannily alike – they’re played by twins, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz – but also that one girl is the mother of the other. Petite maman is a time-travel fantasy, a dream movie or a supernatural fairytale, however you prefer to read it, about an eight-year-old girl who meets her own mother as she was in her childhood – briefly, magically, becoming her best friend.

Petite maman (2021)

Petite maman seems an unlikely project for Sciamma, who has tended to be very much a realist director. Yet the film is absolutely of a piece with her previous depictions of female experience at different ages – whether depicting the shifting identities and burgeoning desires of teenagers in her debut Water Lilies (2007) and her breakthrough film Girlhood (2014) or investigating nonconformist gender identity at an earlier age, in her altogether ahead-of-its-time Tomboy (2011). It was 2019’s ambitious Portrait of a Lady on Fire – a lesbian romance set in the 18th century – that confirmed her international auteur renown and that also made her a prominent figurehead in contemporary women’s cinema (even a name emblazoned on T-shirts). But Portrait also marked a shift from conventional realism into a stripped back, imaginative realm of poetic filmmaking, an investigation she pursues further in the concise (72-minute), sparely crafted Petite maman.

Speaking in English on a WhatsApp call, Sciamma explains that Petite maman emerged from her experience writing a family film, Claude Barras’s 2016 stopmotion animation My Life as a Courgette. “It put me in touch with this new experience of thinking about children as viewers. I’d always thought that a film with kids, like Tomboy, could really be welcoming for young viewers – but the idea of a film which would be melancholic, tough, as emotionally engaged as Courgette, that totally changed things for me as a screenwriter.”

Petite maman is based on a simple but deeply fertile idea – in effect, that the child is mother to the woman. At the start of the film, eight-year old Nelly learns of the death of her grandmother. While she and her parents are clearing out the house of the deceased, Nelly befriends a girl of her own age whom she meets in the nearby woods; the girl is called Marion, which is also the name of Nelly’s mother. Visiting Marion at her home – an uncanny double of her grandmother’s place – the girl realises that her new friend is actually her own mother when she was a child.

As the action shifts between the two houses – both eerie sites of memory and loss – the film becomes at once a time-travel adventure, a supernatural anecdote, a tale of friendship and love, and very possibly, one suspects, an illustration of certain psychoanalytic mirror-based theories of child development.

The film is also a captivating snapshot of the lost realm of childhood, and a wonderful portrait of its two heroines – played by the Sanz sisters in a manner that’s anything but child-actor cute, their quiet solemnity surprisingly close to the detached formality of Robert Bresson’s favoured acting style.

Petite maman (2021)

What Sciamma loved about the premise was its warmth, she says: “It was a very striking idea, but very simple. It felt like it didn’t even belong to me, but to some very ancient mythology, maybe in matriarchal society – it felt timeless.” Sciamma very much intended the film to be properly “intergenerational”.

She believes children and adults will see Petite maman in pretty much the same way – and gives the example of the anime master Miyazaki Hayao, whose films (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988; Princess Mononoke, 1997) she loves. “Grownups and kids see exactly the same thing in Miyazaki, it’s not like this Pixar experience, where different generations are totally fulfilled with different layers of expectation. Of course, with Petite maman, there are different levels, in terms of what moves a kid or a grown-up more. But I feel like you’re ageless when you’re watching the film. I’ve already had feedback from a young audience, and they’re mostly focused on the loss of the grandmother, because that’s what they know and what they feel most.”

Even while it’s about a mother and daughter Petite maman is a parable of sisterhood and friendship. The ambivalent title makes you wonder which girl is mother to which, with Nelly comforting her own mother as a child just as, early on, she’s tenderly solicitous to the adult Marion. “Even at the beginning of the film, we can see the kid taking care of her mother, feeding her, nurturing her. I tried to ask myself candidly, if I met my mother at the same age, would I be a mother, would she still be my mother, would we share the same mother – that is, my grandmother and her mother? Would we be sisters?”

That last question, Sciamma says, is why she decided to cast siblings. She put out an ad for sisters, specifying that twins were welcome to apply – although her long-time casting director Christel Baras originally felt the idea was too much like a gimmick. In fact, says Sciamma, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz “don’t even consider themselves twins – they consider themselves sisters born the same day. We weren’t looking for resemblance at all, just a strong sense of equality.” But the moment the pair walked in, right at the beginning of the search, she knew they were right for the roles. “They just came walking towards me – and the way they walked was really important in the film. Right away it was: ‘OK, here’s Nelly and here’s Marion – if they want to do the film, it’s gonna happen.’ ”

Petite maman (2021)

As for their extraordinary, no-frills performance style, it came about partly through Sciamma’s very specific instructions. “I was not asking for their emotion, ever. I was always talking about emotions in cinema. For example, when Nelly goes into the room as a spy to check on the mother, I wouldn’t say, ‘You’re scared’, I’d say, ‘This is a spy film.’ It was always about cinema. ‘When you’re running in the forest, it’s an action scene, you’re like James Bond.’ I think it’s a great way to work with kids – and with actors in general.”

The very personal dimension of Petite maman comes from the film’s design and its shooting, which reconnected Sciamma with her own past. The two girls’ identical houses, their interiors created in the studio, were a fusion of the homes of Sciamma’s own grandmothers, while the exteriors were shot in the woods of her childhood home Cergy, where she herself once built a treehouse. Cergy is a 1960s new town, its specific style of implantation in the landscape giving it a particular filmic quality that made it a memorable location in Éric Rohmer’s 1987 film My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. “I was as old as the town I grew up in,” says Sciamma. “It was a very special childhood, to live in a place that’s brand new, with no past – it’s like you’re inventing it. It was a very experimental town, I had an experimental childhood in a way.”

Playing with time, and manipulating studio space in a simple but resonant way, Sciamma feels, “I was using the same tools as the women pioneers of cinema.” She’s thinking specifically of French cinema’s founding godmother Alice Guy-Blaché and of Germaine Dulac, a groundbreaking thinker on film and the director of those key explorations of film as dream, The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) and The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928). “She’s closest to my heart, because she really did magic realism. She was a philosopher of cinema, an activist for cinema as a language and as a grammar. Her writings are still very interesting and relevant – she’s saying that cinema isn’t literature, it’s music. I thought a lot about her.”

Paris, 13th District (2021)

Sciamma is already working on her next project, but prefers to keep it under wraps for now. Meanwhile, she figures as a co-writer on the new film by Jacques Audiard, Paris, 13th District (aka Les Olympiades), based on three stories by US graphic novelist Adrian Tomine – so where should fans look for the specific Sciamma touch?

“The story of the cam girl, I obviously care a lot about that.” The episode is about an online encounter between two women, a law student (Portrait star Noémie Merlant) and an internet sex worker, a webcam model played by Jehnny Beth, solo star and singer of the band Savages. “But in my version, the characters didn’t even cross paths – it was much more of a ghost story.”

Sciamma agrees that Petite maman belongs to a new phase of her filmmaking, following in the wake of the pared-down poetic clarity of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “This is a post-Portrait film, I couldn’t have done it this way before. It’s about getting closer to your heart, and your own perspective on cinema. Portrait was a radical departure, and now I’m trying to do that even more – and to do what feels right, with all the tools of cinema. I’m getting away from narrative conflict and also violence on screen, and of course that’s also a political evolution regarding how I think about representation. But it’s also what feels good – which is the same, you know?”

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Originally published: 19 November 2021