I thought I’d never forget what it was like to be a kid, and I thought I hadn’t forgotten, but then I saw Petite Maman and realized I had, because Céline Sciamma’s latest captures the feeling exactly, and it’s a feeling I haven’t had in ages.
After her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I knew I’d be on the hook for anything Sciamma put out henceforth, and even though I was very much not in the mood for a drama about death, I attended Petite Maman all the same. I am pleased to report that it is the sweetest, most joyful, and least punishing meditation on death/grief I’ve ever seen. The thematic material is indeed quite heavy, but never to the detriment of sheer watchability. This is the most I’ve ever heard a film audience make collective “oh how precious” noises in response to what’s onscreen.
That’s Sciamma’s enduring talent as a filmmaker. Despite having an incredible amount of formal skill, the dissolution of the barrier provided by the screen is as complete as can be with Sciamma behind the wheel. Within seconds the viewer is transported entirely into a world so inviting that we never want to leave (even though we have to rather quickly — the film is only 72 minutes long).
Similar to The Florida Project, we get to see a grown-up world through the lens of a youngster, and we do so during a time that any adult would recognize as difficult. A kid, however, does not have the experiential tools to know quite how to feel, but at the same time, their wisdom of inexperience grants an opportunity for adults to see troubling things from a different angle. In the case of Petite Maman, the tragedy in question is the death of an elderly relative.
Young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is helping her parents clean out the home of her recently departed grandmother. It’s a bit much for Mom to take, so she heads home before the job is finished so she can grieve. While Dad puts the finishing touches on the cleanup efforts, Nelly befriends a little girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who lives in a neighboring home. The two children bond quickly, and Nelly is soon able to draw parallels to the state of youth once possessed by her mother, and of which Nelly never knew to give any thought until now. Quietly brilliant.
Petite Maman a coming of age tale like I’ve never seen before, and it’s a joy to watch. One of the absolute best films of the festival.
Part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, October 20-30, 2021; filmadelphia.org/festival