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Petite Maman: A quietly powerful fairytale about childhood, loss, and ties that bind

The director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Girlhood is back with an exquisite, wistful film for all ages weaving together threads evoking films as different as Ponette, Frequency, and My Neighbor Totoro.

A scene from "Petite Maman", directed by Céline Sciamma.

My father died a year ago, and when I preached at his funeral Mass I was struck by the fact that when my grandfather died 32 years earlier and my father (then a Reformed minister) preached at his funeral, my father had been younger than I was last year. For some reason my father has never been, in my mind, exactly the same age as me. Of course I’ve seen photographs, as a young man and even as a child, of my father at about the same age that I was, but somehow those photos were never fully real to me until I was old enough to see my own children in them.

Why is it that I can grasp the idea of my father being younger than me more easily than the idea of him being my own age?

Whether or not such questions have answers, Céline Sciamma’s exquisite little film Petite Maman exists in the space where the answers would be. Wistful and intimate, this film for all ages covers a few special days in the life of a young girl named Nelly as she and her mother Marion try to cope with the recent death of Nelly’s grandmother, Marion’s mother. It is also about Nelly’s relationship with a girl her own age, also named Marion, whom she meets in the woods near her late grandmother’s house. Nelly and little Marion are played by twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, and the immediate bond the two young girls share as they collaborate on a fort of tree branches and go to Marion’s house for hot cocoa feels at once utterly natural and also hauntingly magical.

The film opens with Nelly in an assisted-living facility where she has evidently spent some time, going from room to room matter-of-factly saying “Au revoir” to the residents. Then she comes to a room where the bed is made up and the last “Au revoir” has been said. Nelly confides later to her mother (Nina Meurisse) that she’s sad that she didn’t say goodbye to her grandmother the way she would have wanted to, because she didn’t know it would be the last time. “We can’t know,” mother and daughter agree. It’s a mark of the film’s delicate restraint that when another “Au revoir” comes late in the film, although Nelly knows things that are impossible to know, there is no simple wish fulfillment, or perhaps it’s that what we wish for isn’t exactly what we think it is.

What I’ve written so far may remind some readers of Ponette, Jacques Doillon’s poignant 1996 masterpiece about a four-year-old girl trying to understand the death of her mother in a car crash. Ponette ends with magical-realist flourish briefly reuniting mother and daughter. What Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Girlhood) does is stranger and more central, evoking less expected comparisons to films from My Neighbor Totoro to Frequency. Not long ago, reviewing, of all things, Spider-Man: No Way Home, I remarked on my abiding love of time travel for its power to speak to deep human longings to undo past wrongs and heal incurable wounds: to offer, in a word, an imaginative picture of redemption beyond anything we experience in the ordinary flow of time. There’s no place in a film like Petite Maman for world-bending sorcery or flux capacitors, but the elegant simplicity of what Sciamma does with an unexplained wrinkle in the fabric of reality speaks as eloquently to those longings as any film I’ve seen.

For a child, losing a grandparent can be part of growing up, a coming-of-age experience; losing a parent for an adult can be an encounter with childhood, especially if it involves going through the contents of the household they grew up in, the actual stuff of their childhood. Marion’s mother kept reams of her childhood scribblings, and Nelly is interested to see that her mother was better at drawing than spelling. Sleeping in her mother’s old bedroom, Nelly tries to see the shadowy panther that seemed to appear at the foot of the bed, frightening Marion at night. Part of what gives the film its Miyazaki fairy-tale vibe is that the panther, which doesn’t exist, is no more or less incidental than anything else.

When Nelly, riding in the back seat behind her mother at the wheel, breaks out snacks, and then without a word reaches into the front seat to pop a few cheese puffs in her mother’s mouth, followed by a sip from a juice box, it’s a tiny moment, but it speaks to the film’s big themes as shrewdly as any image in the film. Another example: Moving a cabinet in the kitchen, Marion’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) discovers a patch of patterned wallpaper uncovered by layers of paint. The wallpaper becomes an unspoken point of reference throughout the film, but there’s also thematic significance: What is covered up by time is still there and still matters.

When I was a boy, a wolf that didn’t exist lurked under our coffee table. One of my defining childhood memories is a nightmare about that wolf. My kids all know the story of that nightmare. What nightmares my father had, he never told me and I never asked. I didn’t know, the last time I said goodbye to him, that it would be the last time. While I was writing this review, my 9-year-old son (who found Petite Maman more captivating than he expected) told me about a dream he had last night, and I listened more attentively than I think I normally would have. What I’m saying is that you should watch Petite Maman.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 25 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

4 Comments

  1. My father had been younger than I was last year, says deacon Greydanus. Intelligibility may be greater when there’s distance in chronology [an emotive relativity] than when there’s none. Nelly’s goodbyes to those awaiting departure seems existential poetry I recall from viewing French films, a kind of stoicism regarding death, marriage failure, tragic loss of some kind. Wistful.
    There’s a sadness. Wistful is Greydanus’ word [I don’t recall it better placed]. Reflecting on my own feelings since I can’t read the Deacon’s soul, although I think I’ve felt the same sense of loss of not having said those last words that were never said during life. A loss of intimacy that never happened though secretly desired. My brother Carl had difficulty showing tenderness, perhaps because too many members, friends he trained with in the 45th died in his arms. They’d call Carl! Carl! when badly often mortally wounded. Those were his most intimate moments he recounted as a medic WWII. The other was a great blessing. On his death bed at Maimonides Brooklyn he embraced me for the first time before he departed. There are some rewards of being a priest. I suppose this is why Greydanus listens intently to his kids dreams.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Father, and for sharing the story about your brother. I’m so happy that you had that moment with him in the hospital before he died. A grace from God. I don’t think it’s too much to hope that this film, Petite Maman, leads to many such moments of grace for people who see it.

  2. Eight years ago I said goodbye to my mother in her hospital room, knowing what would happen any minute. My most vivid memory from that experience is my younger brother embracing me for the first time, at least since we’d reached adulthood, when the nurse told us, “She’s gone.” Six and half years later, I said goodbye to my brother in a restaurant parking lot after a birthday dinner for me. I did not know this would be the last goodbye and that he would take his own life two days after that. I think this movie would wreck me.

  3. Some situations have no consolation in them; and never will have. I think it was a part of Job’s sufferings. What then is one to do?

    The first commandment isn’t just a formal religious direction; and it’s not only an ordering of virtue; and it’s not merely a philosophic assertion. It’s a call into reality.

    And I think that there is a lesson in it here for the second commandment. This one sometimes tries to be the equivalent but it is not; and Jesus never said they’re identical.

    What the first commandment is saying sometimes, is that we enter into the mystery of God in those things that themselves have marked out their own limits!

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  1. Catch the rare treasure Petite Maman on the big screen if you can – Looking Closer with Jeffrey Overstreet

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