Petite Maman

Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenplay: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Joséphine Sanz (Nelly), Gabrielle Sanz (Marion), Nina Meurisse (La mère), Stéphane Varupenne (Le père), Margot Abascal (La grand-mère), Florès Cardo (Dame maison de retraite), Josée Schuller (Dame maison de retraite), Guylène Péan (Dame maison de retraite)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2022
Country: France
Petite Maman Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Petite Maman

Given that I was one of the few critics who did not fall for Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019), which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes and confirmed Sciamma’s place on the cinematic map (for the record, I found it mannered and overly composed, which ran contrary to its portrait of intense emotion and passion), you can imagine how surprised I was to be so deeply moved by her subsequent film, Petite Maman. Simple and profound, Petite Maman weaves a world of emotional complexity in a brief 72 minutes via a fantastical scenario that has no explanation—not that it needs one. It is a unique mother-daughter tale of uncommon gentleness and acuity; it lacks anything like pretension or guile, favoring instead a visual and narrative directness that is as poignant as it is genuine.

The story unfolds over a week in which an 8-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the rural home of her recently deceased grandmother to clear out the house—one of those longstanding rituals that follow in the wake of a familial death. For reasons that aren’t clear until much later in the film, Marion departs (we assume she is overwhelmed with her mother’s death), leaving Nelly and her father to clean out the house. When Nelly ventures into the surrounding woods, the terrain within which her own mother played as a child and built a fort of branches and limbs, she comes across another 8-year-old girl who is also named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and who looks strikingly like her. If you are anything like me, it might take you a little bit to recognize that Nelly and Marion could be twins—and they are, in fact, played by twins, although the manner in which each girl acts and the differences in their clothing and hair styles keeps them distinct. It might also take you a little bit of time to piece together that Nelly somehow time-travels when she goes into the woods and that her new friend, with whom she strikes a quick and easy rapport, is her own mother when she was her age. When they go back together to Nelly’s grandmother’s house, she finds the house as it was when her mother was a child, with her grandmother (Margot Abascal) alive and well and three decades younger.

Over the course of a few days, Nelly and Marion become good friends, playing in the woods, writing and developing their own murder-mystery play in which they both play multiple parts, and having a sleepover that involves making pancakes in the kind of carefree, messy way that only children can accomplish. They drink hot chocolate. They take a boat out onto a lake. And, at some point, Nelly realizes what we have already realized, and in a manner that is achingly sincere and devoid of melodrama, she simply informs Marion that she is her daughter, a fantastical conceit that Marion immediately accepts. A major element of Petite Maman’s power is the way it immerses us into the world of childhood where magic and dreams and the impossible are all still possible, before the world has beaten it out of us. It evokes the ethos of Supertramp’s 1979 “The Logical Song,” which is all about how the world doesn’t just expect, but demands that everything that is wonderful about childhood be left behind in favor of rigor and logic: “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical … But then they sent me away to teach me how to sensible, logical, oh responsible, practical …” Petite Maman celebrates that space where everything is still wonderful, a miracle, beautiful, and magical.

Working again with cinematographer Claire Mathon, who shot Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma evokes a familiar world in a way that constantly defamiliarizes it, turning ordinary domestic spaces and the simplicity of nature into something transformative where the impossible can and does happen. At the same time, though, the film doesn’t rely on the fantastical to work its magic. One of the best scenes takes place within the first few minutes, when Marion is driving Nelly from the grandmother’s retirement home to the empty house. Nelly, who is sitting in the backseat, asks if it is snack time, and after Marion says “yes,” she excitedly opens a bag of cheesy puffs and starts snacking away. The camera then cuts to a static medium side shot of Marion driving, and every few seconds a little hand appears in the frame with a cheesy puff to feed her, and after three or four times the hand appears with a juice box. A few second later, two little hands emerge and gently wrap around Marion’s neck in an endearing, from-the-backseat hug. It is a small, sweet moment, one that is even more meaningful when you watch the film a second time and know what Marion knows in that moment.

One gets the sense that the film might fall apart if it were not for Sciamma’s absolute conviction about the simple beauties and charms of childhood, which is embodied in the twin performances by Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who have a fully natural presence in front of the camera, especially when they are together. Joséphine has some lovely moments with Nina Meurisse as the adult Marion and Stéphane Varupenne as her father, who seems even more lost in the situation than she is. There are some hard adult truths in Petite Maman, but the film is so filled with little notes of grace and tenderness that it leaves us with the sense that the world has much more wonder than sadness, more connection that isolation, more hope than cynicism. It is a truly wonderful film.

Petite Maman Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video conversation between director Céline Sciamma and filmmaker Joachim Trier
  • My Life as a Zucchini (2016), stop-motion animated film cowritten by Sciamma
  • Trailers
  • Essay by author So Mayer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 23, 2023

    Oddly, there is no information in the liner notes about the transfer on Criterion’s Petite Maman Blu-ray, only that it is a 2K digital master. The film was shot digitally, so the image on this disc is a direct digital port. In an interview with Cinematography World, cinematographer Claire Mathon stated, “I chose the Red Monstro and Leitz Thalia lenses to capture the natural richness of the autumn colours in our outdoor scenes, and the Alexa LF with the Leitz Thalias for the interiors, where I favoured the softness of low lighting and the intervention of colour provided by decoration of the stage sets.” The image on Criterion’s disc certainly maintains that intended look, with gorgeous autumnal hues in the exteriors and plenty of contrast and shadow detail in the darker interiors. Despite being shot digitally, the image has a rich, filmlike quality that was clearly intentional. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround, and while there isn’t a great deal of activity in the surround channels, there are some subtle atmospheric effects, especially in the exteriors, and the musical score sounds rich and vibrant. The disc includes a 22-minute video conversation between director Céline Sciamma and filmmaker Joachim Trier (The Worst Person in the World), which offers some nice insight into the film. Also on the disc is My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette, 2016), an Oscar-nominated feature-length stop-motion animated film cowritten by Sciamma, and two trailers, one in English and one in French.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.