NYFF 2021 review: Petite maman (Céline Sciamma)

“The pure beauty and grace of Sciamma’s film overcomes any obstacle with the structure and slightness.”

One of my most vivid memories as a child was visiting my grandfather in hospital prior to his death. I had been all but abandoned by my parents and from an early age my grandparents had been raising me. When I was ten my grandfather prepared for heart surgery. Not knowing much at the time, my grandmother and I visited him the day prior to surgery. While she was in the hallway speaking to nurses and assistants, I spent time with him in his room. When my grandmother beckoned me to leave with her I did, but then I returned later to tell him goodbye. Little did I know he would die the next day during the operation, and his death devastated me for some time and still does to this day.

In Petite maman, Céline Sciamma opens the film with a young girl, Nelly, around the age of eight, who visits elderly patients in a nursing home to tell them goodbye. Her grandmother has just passed away and she’s saddened by the loss but also says farewell to others that lived in neighbouring rooms. Later in the film, Nelly’s mother asks her what’s one thing she would want to do with her grandmother if she had the chance. She notes “I wish I could tell her goodbye.” While I did have the opportunity to tell my grandfather goodbye that day in hospital, I never had a true emotional goodbye. I expected to see him the following day and instead my heart was shattered. This is just as sad for Nelly as she didn’t get the chance to give her grandmother a farewell.

Universal emotions and truths apply throughout Céline Sciamma’s charming and beautiful Petite maman. It tells this story of Nelly and her parents as they go to her grandmother’s house to pack up her belongings and to empty the house. During this time she asks her mother to show her her childhood treehouse, but her mother is too busy with packing. As she goes to sleep, her mother tells her of a panther that would always frighten her at night by the foot of her bed. It wasn’t really a panther, but caused by the shadows that entered the room at night. Nelly is a rather smart and wise child, and she doesn’t see the panther however much she tries. This scene shows how much she is rooted in reality and hard to surprise, even at her young age.

But magical things do happen to Nelly… She wakes up one morning and her mother is gone; likely due to the grief experienced in losing her own mother, Nelly’s father explains. Nelly goes outside to explore and stumbles upon her mother’s treehouse, where there’s another young girl, Marion, attempting to strengthen its sides with branches. Cinematographer Claire Mathon exquisitely captures the autumnal lighting and feelings of the time of the year. This arresting and delicate use of colors and framing further intensifies Sciamma’s thematic preoccupations.

Marion invites Nelly to her house when it starts to rain, and to Nelly’s surprise it’s the same house as her grandmother’s. With much beauty and grace Sciamma transports us into the past simultaneously to existing in the present. No explanation is needed, as either this is a young girl’s dream or a magical reality in which she exists. Her mother is now her age, and she is able to spend time with her younger mother and also see her grandmother again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all visit our lost loved ones again?

Sciamma beautifully captures so many feelings and emotions of young children in Petite maman. Not only does she show this power of grief and regret, she also shows the innocence and loneliness of single children. I grew up alone, without any siblings in my life, and much of the latter part of this film precisely examines the life of a single child who now has a partner to play and socialize with.

Ultimately though, the film falters slightly; it’s missing a third act. It has a short run time at 72 minutes, but the further I get from my initial viewing of the film, the less this seems to be an issue. Instead the pure beauty and grace of Sciamma’s film overcomes any obstacle with the structure and slightness.