PRINT February 2022



Céline Sciamma, Petite maman, 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 72 minutes. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).

THERE ARE NO MOTHERS in fairy tales, a genre of orphans whose winding paths, however enchanted, lead to domestic conventionality. Not so in Céline Sciamma’s elliptical and enigmatic Petite maman, about a girl who encounters a stranger she has known since birth and how their incredible attachment twists the asymmetries of motherhood into a new, beguiling shape. Running to a crisp seventy-two minutes, the film begins with eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) bidding au revoir to the elderly residents of a nursing home one by one before arriving at the room of her maternal grandmother, who recently died before she could say goodbye. The girl and her parents, Marion (Nina Meurisse) and a man credited only as “le père” (Stéphane Varupenne), arrange to spend the next couple of days cleaning out Marion’s childhood home, a cabin on the sylvan outskirts of the French director’s native Cergy-Pontoise. The house reveals its secrets readily: a hidden pantry door, a vestige of green wallpaper forgotten behind a cabinet. More guarded is Marion herself, whose affection for her daughter is deep but distant; overcome with nostalgia, she leaves the next morning without a word.

Across her five features—from 2011’s Tomboy, about a preadolescent navigating gender, to her breakout Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), which relays the illicit passions of a painter and her female subject through haunted flashbacks—Sciamma enlivens a platitude: that only by loving another will we finally see ourselves. Petite maman literalizes this. Chasing a runaway paddleball in the woods, Nelly discovers her spitting image in a child (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s IRL twin) who asks for help moving a large branch. Sciamma, a connoisseur of the coup de foudre, stages their encounter with wordless intensity, the girls trading tentative glances as they lug the stick to a fort in progress resembling one Nelly’s mother has mentioned. We learn that the double’s name is Marion too. The two visit her nearby cottage, an earlier version of the previous home, where Nelly’s grandmother (Margo Abascal) still lives. The patterned green wallpaper, here intact, now summons up the Overlook Hotel.

Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite maman finds Sciamma straying farther from linear exposition, preferring to watch relationships take on new depths.

But Petite maman’s rather gothic premise—an eight-year-old girl comes face-to-face with her eight-year-old mother—is played so straight and sweet that it appears almost natural. The film is as unmoored from narrative as it is from time, defining Marion and Nelly’s reforged bond mainly through action: They stir hot chocolate, row boats, flip pancakes, and fortify their hut with twine and autumn leaves. (In what is perhaps a wry nod to Portrait, they also script and perform, with Bressonian restraint, a melodrama in which a detective falls for the rich proprietress of a Coca-Cola factory.) Ever attuned to the movement of phantoms, Claire Mathon allows her lens to linger on doorways and bedrooms, the austerity of her compositions enhancing the sisters’ unfeigned performances and deepening the enigma at the core of the tale. That enigma has less to do with time travel than with the mystery—achieved not through special effects but through a careful, dreamlike balance of specificity and symbol—of our origins and endings. One day in the forest, Nelly finally tells Marion that she is her child. Asked if she comes from the future, Nelly replies, “I come from the path behind you.”

Though the film was conceived before the lockdowns of the past two years, Petite maman’s meditation on memory and bereavement inevitably refracts through life during the pandemic, a period of profound temporal disintegration. Yet a different malady looms over chez Marion, where Nelly’s ailing grandmother appears to be anticipating her own funeral. Her unnamed affliction is genetic: Shadowing the girls’ time together is a vague operation Marion must undergo the day after her ninth birthday. Might we diagnose their condition as motherhood itself? Not emblematic of mothering—a verb shared between Marion and Nelly as they care for each other—but of that institution of heteronormative family life upended throughout Sciamma’s oeuvre. The filmmaker has cited anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki as a direct influence, but Petite maman feels equally inspired by Chantal Akerman, another queer time bender and astute examiner of daughterly devotion whose work repeatedly maps twilight zones of filial intimacy and estrangement. (As it happens, Akerman’s own beloved mother was called Nelly.)

Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite maman finds Sciamma straying farther from linear exposition, preferring to watch relationships take on new depths. But while Portrait occasionally undermines its ardor with ham-handed polemic, its follow-up is more reticent. “Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide,” Marion says. “There’s just no one to tell them to.” When Marion informs Nelly of her dreams of becoming an actress, the flicker on the latter’s face feels like a comprehension of all the lives her mother won’t get to live. Is their brief reencounter just another put-on, a product of childhood make-believe? Petite maman chooses not to say, its secret being all that must go unshared between those we love and remember—acts of imagination no more passive, in Sciamma’s movies, than setting something ablaze. 

Petite maman will be available to stream on MUBI in the UK beginning February 18.

Zack Hatfield is an associate editor of Artforum.