After stunning audiences a few years ago with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns with Petite Maman. Having now been shown at several film festivals including Berlinale and the BFI London Film Festival, this latest feature from Sciamma focuses on an eight-year-old girl named Nelly (played by Joséphine Sanz) as she must cope with the death of her grandmother and the sudden disappearance of her mother.
In Hollywood, it is said that you should avoid working with children. Yet despite that old adage, Sciamma makes them the focus in this story, and to great effect. Joséphine Sanz is fantastic here, and a lot of that is down to how authentic the childhood experience is told. Petite Maman shows a layer of children that is rarely explored. The curiousity and impact of having to deal with ‘adult’ issues such as death and isolation. Despite her young age, Nelly is fully aware of the emotions that her mother is going through and what impact her grandmother’s death will have on her. It never oversteps a line and ages Nelly beyond her childhood, but it is handled so sensitively and beautifully.
There are certain stylistic choices to Sciamma’s direction, and she uses these techniques here once again to her strength. There is no overbearing score present in the film, with music only prominently featuring in one scene near the end. This allows the audience to feel immersed in the world, with no distractions to take us away from the main story and the characters. So when music is then used, it creates a joyous feeling that helps emphasise the freedom within that moment.
Sciamma manages to create such tight relationships between the main characters, and she does this using as few words as possible. There are stretches of time where characters do not need to say anything, as their actions speak louder than words. Seeing how Nelly takes care of her mother during this time in their lives, just by handing a juice carton or giving a hug behind the driver’s seat in the car, makes for a very endearing and heart-warming interaction that says so much about their relationship.
The story itself is simple, but the presentation keeps it clean and focused. Given the fantastical elements within it, another storyteller would have been muddled with the material and try to over-explain everything. Sciamma recognises it is not necessary sand and it is the main themes of the narrative that make the movie so poignant. This is paired with a brief runtime of 72 minutes, which flies by and yet feels like the perfect runtime.
Quite simply, Céline Sciamma is one of the best directors working to date. Showing versatility in her work, whilst focusing on the female gaze and the different relationships between women. Petite Maman is just another example of how she can make the audience see a standard relationship – in this case, one of mother and daughter – through another lens and create impact whilst doing so. It is no surprise that this is one of the best films of the London Film Festival, and also one of the best films of the year.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Runtime: 72 minutes