Petite Maman was shot during last year’s COVID restrictions in France, and it’s hard to think of a filmmaker better suited to the systems of isolated bubbles than Celine Sciamma. All of her films manage to create their own little universes, into which intruders can rarely break through, and Petite Maman is perhaps the pinnacle of this style – even more pared back in its cast size and geographical scope than 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Running at barely over 70 minutes with just two locations and never more than three people in the frame at once, it’s a pint-sized delight.
The first of these locations is the house belonging to the recently-passed grandmother of adventurous 8 year old Nelly (Josephine Sanz), a big but empty-feeling woodland manor that Nelly and her parents are in the process of clearing out. One morning, Nelly wakes up to her mum Marion (Nina Meurisse) having stolen away in the early hours, overwhelmed by emotion, leaving Nelly and her laid-back dad (Stephane Varupenne) to finish the packing up process. Feeling anxious and more than a little abandoned, Nelly sets about exploring the film’s second location, the local woodland, where she runs into another 8 year old (played by Sanz’s twin sister Gabrielle), who just so happens to be Marion as a child.
Sciamma doesn’t over-explain this time-traveling miracle – Nelly and the child Marion’s excitable kid logic ensures they understand and accept it implicitly, and we are asked to do the same. It’s a great choice, never bogging this fleet-footed story down in exposition, letting the contagious wide-eyed wonder of the kids do the work of immersing you in Sciamma’s magical autumnal world. She gets incredible performances out of the twins, silly yet increasingly worldly-wise, and with just a touch of something eerie about them.
Petite Maman occasionally functions as a light-hearted ghost story, though it’s never just one thing at a time. Its central premise lends itself to childish fun – short, warm, and funny, this would be an absolutely fantastic film to introduce any curious kids to foreign cinema – but something more profound moves beneath the surface, a way to bridge the chasm between children and their parents, who they may never truly *know* as people. It’s an incredibly potent idea, though one that I found maybe just a little more moving in theory than in practice, Sciamma’s gentle rhythms and minuscule runtime meaning the emotional beats ever so slightly pull their punches.
With everything else going on, Sciamma also makes sure to keep Petite Maman simply adorable. Scenes where Nelly and Marion make pancakes together or put on a wonderfully ambitious little murder-mystery play are just delightful, and are sure to remind you of your own childhood games, while the costuming (done by Sciamma herself) is brilliantly comforting, all fluffy sweaters and dungarees for both the kids and adults. Within its time-travel story, Petite Maman consciously keeps itself timeless – there’s little in the way of era-identifying tech and the ‘future music’ that Nelly plays for Marion is amusingly ‘80s-styled. Its world doesn’t change so much as the people inhabiting it do, while familial love remains an eternal constant, an oasis of calm and comfort that defines the gentle wonder that Petite Maman holds.