▶︎ Petite Maman will stream on Mubi later in 2021.

  • Reviewed at the 2021 Berlinale

An extremely small and exactly perfect film, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman might at first appear dwarfed by her last title, Portrait of a Lady of Fire. But come closer – and this is a film that beckons like a forest path – and there is much that is similar. There’s the luminosity of the filmmaking – an introvert radiance made extrovert by the unshakable assurance of Claire Mathon’s camerawork and Sciamma’s own directorial certitude. And there’s a kinship between the stories, one about romantic love, the other about a mother-daughter bond. Both are really about the beautiful tragedy of love, even when fully reciprocated: that you can never truly know anyone, however much you care for them. Portrait, more epic though it was, hinged on the tiny revelation of a finger marking a significant place in a book, and Petite Maman may yet turn out to be the page 28 in the ongoing novel of Sciamma’s career.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight, and her maternal grandmother has just died. With her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), and her father (Stéphane Varupenne), Nelly has taken leave of the other residents of her grandmother’s care home, and is being driven to her grandmother’s old house, where Marion grew up. From the backseat, Nelly wordlessly pops snacks into her mother’s mouth while she drives, even offering her a sip from her juice box – mute acts of care that speak volumes about their closeness, and about Nelly’s unusual empathy for her grieving maman.

It’s a current that flows both ways. Later, Nelly confesses her feelings of confusion and guilt at not having said a proper goodbye – this story is also a superb evocation of a child’s first encounter with death – and so she and Marion reenact a proper farewell, with Marion as her own mother’s proxy.

In the house, a kind of fairytale nook next to a forest, Dad’s presence is peripheral but kind. There are lovely scenes in which Nelly helps him shave or asks him to tell her a secret. But mostly this is about Nelly and Marion, and the fascination Nelly has with stories her mother tells her about her own life at Nelly’s age, in particular a hut she built in the adjoining woods around the time she had an operation to correct an inherited condition.

When Marion is gone before Nelly wakes the next day, her father tells her it’s not for long, and so she swallows her worry and goes to play in the woods. There, she meets an eight-year-old girl who looks a lot like her (Gabrielle Sanz: the young actresses are twins) and is building a hut. Her name is Marion, and she lives in the same house Nelly is staying in, only accessed a different way, fully furnished and inhabited by the younger version of Nelly’s grandmother (Margot Abascal).

The children, often colour-coded in primary hues amid the blazing russets and oranges of the autumnal forest, recall Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, and like with many fairytales there are wish-fulfilment aspects here, as when child-Marion reassures Nelly that she is not responsible for her adult mother’s sadnesses. But alongside moments of precocious wisdom, there is a precise naturalism to the girls’ interactions. They both accept their little miracle unquestioningly, and behave like any girls whose sudden friendship blossoms over the course of an afternoon. They muck about with rowboats and pancakes and act out hilariously intricate make-believe scenarios.

This gives the film some joyous scenes, but never at the cost of Nelly’s curious, wondering and occasionally fearful interior life. There may be a lot of knowledge about the world that she has not yet accrued, but her heart – like the hearts of all the children in the films of Céline Sciamma right back to 2011’s Tomboy – is fully formed, and fully as able to break or heal or beat in time with someone else’s as any adult’s.

“Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide – there’s just no one to tell them to,” says Nelly, perhaps voicing the vague loneliness of many of us who have had fewer people to tell our secrets to lately. In addition to all its other bright, polished pleasures, Sciamma’s film embodies a scintillatingly simple solution to the conundrum of filmmaking under lockdown conditions: if circumstances dictate that the scale becomes smaller, zoom in. Petite Maman is a tiny suspended moment within time, magnified at high resolution until the microscopic becomes momentous, and the mystery of a child’s love for her mother becomes the mystery of all love.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Further reading

Portraits of young women on fire: Céline Sciamma on female art, identity and intimacy

By Leigh Singer

Portraits of young women on fire: Céline Sciamma on female art, identity and intimacy

Céline Sciamma on the Cinema Utopia, the cinema of her teens

By Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma on the Cinema Utopia, the cinema of her teens

“It’s about a love between mother and daughter”: Alice Winocour on Proxima and making space for mothers

“It’s about a love between mother and daughter”: Alice Winocour on Proxima and making space for mothers