Petite Maman: Doubles and duplicates abound in delightful magic-realist fable

Céline Sciamma’s latest film is a delicately constructed miniature

Magical moments to be expected in this new adventure from French film-maker Céline Sciamma

Film Title: Petite Maman

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne.

Genre: Family

Running Time: 74 min

Fri, Nov 19, 2021, 05:00

   

For many young children, imagining their parents at their own age lies beyond the wildest flights of fancy. For eight-year-old Nelly, it’s an adventure. An only child, Nelly and her parents return to her late grandmother’s home to put the place in order. A rural pile surrounded by woods, granny’s house is the perfect setting for a fairy story. So it proves.

Wandering through the forest in search of the tree fort her mother Marion built as a child, Nelly encounters an eight-year-old girl – also named Marion – who looks and sounds exactly like her, save for a sterner aspect and a different coat. In an even odder development, Marion takes Nelly to an earlier version of Nelly’s grandmother’s house, where a younger version of her grandmother (Margot Abascal) still lives.

Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman. Photograph: Lilies Films
Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman. Photograph: Lilies Films

Doubles and duplicates abound in Céline Sciamma’s delightful magic-realist fable. In common with the director’s Water Lilies, Tomboy, and especially her screenplay for My Life As A Courgette, Petite Maman is exclusively revealed through a child protagonist experiencing an emotional growth spurt. There is something of Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamscapes – albeit without forest spirits or catbuses – in Nelly’s imaginings. As with My Neighbour Totoro, Nelly’s environs are enchanted but never threatening; a nexus of wonderment found between bereavement, curiosity and fancy.

A delicately constructed miniature, this is a world away from the emotional sweep of Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The French film-maker coaxes remarkable performances from twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. The most magical moments are the most ordinary, as Claire Mathon’s camera sneaks up on the two little girls in peals of laughter as they make a mess with pancakes or divvying up the parts in the script for (a fantastic-sounding) murder-mystery.

In one scene, Nelly refuses an offer from her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to read a bedtime story. “I want to sleep to get to tomorrow,” insists Nelly. One feels the same way between Sciamma films. 

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