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(Credit: Petite Maman)

Film

'Petite Maman' Review: A spellbinding French fairytale

@Russellisation
'Petite Maman' - Céline Sciamma
4.2

The strange, existential concept of meeting one’s parents in their youth is an abstract notion explored throughout science fiction cinema and literature. Famously examined in Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis when Marty McFly bumps into his bumbling father, these moments are often played for laughs or cloying sentimentality. Perhaps meeting your parents whilst they were at a tender young age would be a relatively normal experience, a calming interaction that isn’t backed by an orchestra of saccharine strings. 

This is the concept explored in Céline Sciamma’s extraordinary compact fairytale, Petite Maman, a micro time-travel film that dumps the widgets and gizmos of science fiction in favour of a smart, subtle and sweet coming of age tale. Produced under the coronavirus restrictions of 2020 and 2021, Petite Maman shows off a simple domestic story that follows the adventures of two young girls in the woods of their nearby homes. 

Centring on eight-year-old Nelly, played by Joséphine Sanz, the film begins with the passing of the young girl’s grandmother in a nursing home before she accompanies her mother to an isolated home in the countryside to organise through dusty memories and forgotten belongings. Regretting not saying goodbye to her grandmother, Nelly discusses childhood with her mother while enjoying the wilderness of the surrounding area in the day.

It is in the autumnal forest that she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), her twin in both likeness and personality who shares her name with Nelly’s mother, and whose mother also bears resemblance to the recently passed grandmother. Such sparks a spellbinding fairytale led by the sheer frenetic energy of the two lead characters whose real-life familial bond as twins helps to elevate the film’s authenticity. 

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As a charming, magical fable of Studio Ghibli, Petite Maman contains all the wonder, heart and imagination of the iconic animation studio, with Céline Sciamma creating an ethereal space even more profound. Whilst it is strongly suggested that Nelly has indeed travelled through time, this is never explicitly stated, with the whole account holding the possibility of merely being a cosmic coincidence. This is accentuated by the constant playacting between the two girls throughout the film who reenact random scenarios, including a bizarre procedural drama in which someone is murdered for their stake in the Coca-Cola company. 

Is this indeed a case of fantastical wonder or in actuality a sheer coincidence, in reality, it doesn’t really matter as the true core of Céline Sciamma’s film is the exploration of time, and memory between Nelly and her mother. Whether or not such science fiction actually took place, Nelly still accesses a deeper truth to the upbringing of her mother, seeing her through the lens of not a disconnected adult but as a kindred soul with the same fears and concerns as herself. 

Capturing a moment of memory suspended in time, the life of a mother and daughter cross paths in Céline Sciamma’s compelling fable of love, loss and passing. At just over 70 minutes the film plays out as if a warm bedtime story, transporting one off to an ethereal dreamland in which time and place do not exist and memories and grief are examined with close attentiveness.

Petite Maman is in cinemas from November 19th.