By Theresa Rodewald.
Deceptively short but its impact and heart are huge. This is quietly radical filmmaking: Sciamma shows us that there is an alternative to narratives shaped by the patriarchy….”
“You are often unhappy,” says 8-year old Nelly to Marion who is the same age as her but also miraculously, magically, her mother.
“I don’t think it’s your fault,” Marion, the child replies, speaking for her older self. “You didn’t invent my sadness.”
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her parents have moved into her grandmother’s house. Only for a couple of days. Only to clear it out. Nelly’s grandmother, we learn at the beginning of Céline Sciamma’s new film, has died recently. Nelly is grieving, as is her mother (Nina Meurisse).
One morning, her mother is gone. “We thought it would be for the best,” says Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne). Nelly understands and still, she worries that her mother’s sadness, her decision to leave, has something to do with her. That same day, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest. Marion is building a treehouse – not a house in a tree but a house made of trees, a tree tepee. Marion invites Nelly to her home, serves hot chocolate, and Nelly gets a strange feeling. The place is too familiar. It is her grandmother’s house. Somehow, Nelly has travelled into the past. After a brief moment of shock, she accepts this new, magical reality.
The Path Behind Us
Nelly and Marion spend their days in the forest, among brightly coloured leaves, under the fading autumn sun. It is a magical time, a magical place and Petite Maman is a magical film. It reaches into us, it knows about the universal pain that stems from leaving our childhood behind, the peculiar brand of empty freedom that being an adult entails and the wish that many of us harbour of connecting to our parents – or children -– as people, of seeing them for the person they are instead of the role they play in society. It is as though Sciamma is taking us by the hand to lead us into our past – not in a patronising way but gentle, supportive. Although there is sadness there, it comes without darkness. This is empathic, healing filmmaking.
Sciamma does not spoon-feed us emotions nor over-explain the time-travel concept at the heart of her film. “I come from the path behind you,” Nelly says. It is a simple, quietly-beautiful reveal and Marion believes her, just as we do. After the (deserved) success of her period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Céline Sciamma has made a timeless film. In an interview with The A.V. Club, she explained that the clothes, the interior design, and the objects Petite Maman can be found today as well as 50 years ago. The film plays out in the present and the past simultaneously, they blend into each other.
A few days out of the world
Although Petite Maman was made on a smaller scale (at least budget-wise) than Portrait of a Lady on Fire and despite what seems like thematic differences – 18th-century period piece with a lesbian love story vs. magical present/past and two girls just spending time together – there is a thematic continuity. Both films reflect on and dismantle hierarchical modes of order. In Portrait it was the power imbalance usually inherent in the painter-model relationship, the (male) gaze. The film imagined a romantic relationship based on radical equality. Petite Maman deals with what Sciamma has called “the troubling hierarchy of the family.” It imbues the relationship between mother and daughter with equality that is usually absent.
“In all my films, it’s always the same,” Sciamma has said in an interview:
It’s always about a few days out of the world, where we can meet each other, love each other. Also, it’s always about female characters because they can be themselves only in a private place where they can share their loneliness, their dreams, their attitudes, their ideas.”
Both, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman imagine a place and time away from the troubling hierarchies that surround us in everyday life. Many of Sciamma’s films play out over a confined period of time – that summer, that weekend, that month when rules did not apply. A space in which time stretches and the outside world with its systems of power and codes of behaviour falls away. When things are possible and different.
In Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma finds this fluidity in the childhood memory of being away from home. Of getting to spend time with our parents or caregivers away from everyday life, of seeing them in a different light. Throughout the film, Nelly falls asleep in different places. She starts in her mother’s old room, then curls up next to her on the sofa, sleeps in her grandmother’s bed and finally shares a bed with Marion. The spaces that were assigned to Nelly because she is a child dissolve, leaving behind a myriad of possibilities for her to be.
Childhood As It Is
Adults are mostly absent from Petite Maman. They pop up now and again, their presence ephemeral. At the centre of the film are Nelly and Marion. The performances of Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz are striking, results of Sciamma’s collaborative approach to filmmaking. The spirit of equality imbues not only her script but also the way she films it.
Sciamma has discussed how she approached directing Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz as a collaboration, how they worked together with cinematographer Claire Mathon in bringing the script to life and how she sees and shows children with autonomy:
Autonomy is the adventure for a kid. [Because normally], kids don’t have any. A kid never chooses what they’re doing with their time. And suddenly, you give [them] that opportunity. You share a kid’s loneliness, [and then consequently], you give the character and the actors autonomy also.”
Children not only lack autonomy, but they are also often overlooked – pressed into a mould and given a role to play. Most films only convey an idea of childhood. Céline Sciamma shows children as they are. It is in the way Nelly eats her crisps, the way she sneaks her hands around her mother’s neck to hug her, and the way she immerses herself in play that childhood in Petite Maman becomes palpable. Claire Mathon captures all of this with aching tenderness. The images are soft and low in contrast. In showing these girls as capable, sensitive, grieving and resilient, Sciamma and Mathon make visible what is otherwise obscured.
An Absence of Dramatic Conflict
Even though adults aren’t the focus of the narrative, Petite Maman carefully avoids dividing its characters into protagonists and antagonists. There is no need to show neglect or bad parenting. Both, Nelly’s mother and father are people – affectionate, yet imperfect. The grief of Nelly’s mother is palpable, as is her father’s distracted affection. There is a subtle critique here of the unequal division of care work and emotional labour between men and women. But it is the power of Petite Maman to have moved beyond judgement, pain and anger, regret or disappointment. The film holds, understands and feels for all of its characters.
The absence of protagonists and antagonists in Petite Maman corresponds with an absence of dramatic conflict. In an interview with The Guardian, Sciamma has talked about how drama is usually built around conflict and resolution through violence. Drawing attention to the idea that conflict can be limiting, she says: “If you start a scene where the characters are negotiating and agreeing, I’m suddenly full of attention. Now what’s going to happen? The possibilities are limitless. This scene could go anywhere.” Instead of moving from obstacle to obstacle, the film flows from day to day – quietly observant. Getting to spend time with Nelly and Marion, being in that house, in that forest with them, is enough.
Céline Sciamma is arguably one of the best directors working today. Her films are made from a decidedly non-male and non-heteronormative perspective. Sciamma is a uniquely empathic filmmaker. It shows in all of her films but particularly in Petite Maman.
With its runtime of 72 minutes, the film is deceptively short but its impact and its heart are huge. This is quietly radical filmmaking: Sciamma shows us that there is an alternative to narratives shaped by the patriarchy, to telling stories from a straight perspective, with a male gaze. This film does not need antagonists, as it brings equality to an inherently unequal relationship and it is an example of a collaborative approach to filmmaking. Sciamma is a revolutionary filmmaker, and we as audiences are lucky to have her. Her films consistently shift our perspective and show us a different path. Never has this kind of filmmaking been more relevant, more necessary than today.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).