REVIEW: Petite Maman (2021)

I am a dedicated supporter of the 90-minute feature. While Hollywood’s blockbuster movies seem to get longer every year, it is refreshing to be able to sit down to a bite-sized film and consume it with ease. For small, intimate stories an hour-and-a-half is a perfect length. It provides time to tell a narrative, explore a small set of characters, and charm an audience without overly risking the chance of outlasting their patience. Some excellent films run to an even short length than that. Emma Seligman’s excellent Shiva Baby (2020) runs for just 68 minutes. Tony Krawitz’s Dead Europe (2012) and Jewboy (2005) run for 84 and 52 respectively. Petite Maman, the most recent film from acclaimed French writer-director Céline Sciamma, is 72 minutes long. It is a perfect duration for this quiet, emotive, and satisfying drama.

Eight year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her parents to pack up her recently-deceased grandmother’s house. Soon after arriving, Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) finds it all too difficult; when Nelly wakes one morning, her mother is simply gone. In the nearby woods Nelly finds a home-made hut of branches and leaves, exactly like one her mother had once described. Then she meets another eight year-old girl – the near spitting image of herself. It is a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).

One of the strengths of Petite Maman is its stunning combination of realism and fantasy. It is all presented in a matter-of-fact way. The characters have very identifiable and familiar interactions with one another. It is visually presented in a manner that finds beauty in ordinary life. Nelly’s relationship with the young Marion feels immediately believable and naturalistic.

At the same time something deeply uncanny is clearly taking place. Sciamma never makes explicit precisely what has occurred, but it is evident that past and future have collided. Is it a dream? Is it time travel? Is it a ghost story or simply the dreamings of an imaginative child? We never get an answer, not because Sciamma is trying to be mysterious but because having an answer would miss the point. Petite Maman is a film about mothers and daughters, and the struggle to communicate, as well as about grief. Whatever unearthly event takes place, it is secondary to the emotion that it stimulates and the process it resolves.

A small cast keeps everything small and relatable. By casting sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, Sciamma can extract a natural familiarity between them. Nina Meurisse does an excellent job of framing the narrative, with a sensitive performance that effectively book-ends the film. Particularly worthy is Stéphane Varupenne as Nelly’s father. Like the film overall, his performance is quiet and intelligent, and sensitively observed. It is the sort of role that superficially looks simple, but which is only simply because the actor has done such a great job of concealing the work underneath.

Such a perfectly formed short story does not need two-and-a-half hours to explore its potential or entertain its audience. After an hour and change Nelly and Marion’s story ends perfectly, leaving their audience satisfied – and richly rewarded.

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