Review: Petite Maman

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Nelly has just lost her grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods and one day meets a girl her same age building a treehouse. Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse and Margo Abascal.

Céline Sciamma has made a lasting impression with her filmography to date, with each of her films playing on everyday life but with an added intensity, edge and typically beautifully well done tension, Petite Maman is a huge departure from that. It no doubt benefits from those skills but here there’s only a wholesome, sweet and loving atmosphere to be found. Sciamma has written such a pure, touching and downright adorable story. It manages to strike both a childlike perspective and still hold an emotional maturity much beyond the years of Nelly. She takes what is usually a convoluted or overly detailed plot device of time travel or ghostly apparitions, depending on your perspective, and instead keeps it very simple. There’s also a clear awareness of how that simplicity means the story doesn’t have the longevity for an over ninety minute run time and keeps it to a well paced 72-minutes. It’s a perfect amount of time to explore the mother-daughter relationship in a compassionate and captivating manner.

It’s difficult to have a film entirely focused and lead by children, but Sciamma has already shown this is something she does well and she does again here because she gives her characters well-rounded and unique personalities. Particularly in this case as these are not your typical young girls, they blend together a classic silliness and playfulness of their youth with a surprising sympathy and patience. Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz certainly have the advantage of being real life sisters and it shows with how moving their chemistry is. Watching them together is a joy, they’re smart, funny and their play acting is a genuine highlight of the film.

Visually the film captures the softness of its story, with a sentimental hue. There’s a feeling to the way that it moves, not quite an intensity but an emotional depth. It fully embraces its mix of past and present and its nostalgia feeds into the use of colour. It also beautifully blends the two, there’s no stark contrast but instead a highlighting of the huge similarities between the different times, especially of how easy it is to step into one from the other. It favours a pastel style palette, added to the natural woodland setting, everything hits a harmonic tender and affectionate note.

Petite Maman is the sweetest and most wholesome film you’ll see all year, if not in several years. It’s a wonderful exploration of mothers, daughters, love and loss. Céline Sciamma gives these young girls fantastic personalities, they’re an absolute pleasure to watch and work brilliantly together. Every aspect of this film is so terrifically succinct, everything follows the same path of nostalgia, compassion and understanding. It’s a genuine surprise from Sciamma to tackle this kind of story but no shock that it’s an absolutely stunning piece of cinema.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

In UK and Irish cinemas 19th November & on MUBI 4th February 2022

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2021

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