Berlin Review: Céline Sciamma’s ‘Petite Maman’ Is Arrestingly Original And Alive

Todd McCarthy
·4 min read

The two most mature and emotionally insightful seven-year-old girls you’ve ever encountered in your life are the subjects of Petite Maman. Magnetically attentive to the serious “things of life,” as the French put it, Céline Sciamma’s 72-minute study of an intense brief friendship between two girls of extraordinary similar looks prioritizes insight and emotional awareness over any artificial plot constructs. The result is a piercingly satisfying chamber drama with a lovely intimate feel.

After her great international success two years ago with Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Sciamma was in a position to do anything she pleased, and the new film is arresting and unusual in nearly every way. The two girls in question seem half-curious kids/half-mature adults, so intently do they address matters that count in the very little time they know they’ll have together.

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Both girls’ families are in stressful straits. The grandmother of Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just died and the youngster has come with her parents (Stephane Varapenne and Nina Meurisse) to clear out the old woman’s small country home in a forest.

The family’s somber mood is acutely in tune with the autumn leaves that are falling all around them, so Nelly is fortunate to encounter another eight-year-old, Marion, who’s trying to build a little treehouse. Neither has any siblings. It’s unremarked upon, but the resemblance between the two girls is so uncanny that it’s difficult to tell them apart. You have wait for the end credits to learn that the roles are played by sisters, Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz.

The build-up to the girls’ bonding takes nearly a half-hour, or nearly half the movie, so it must be stressed that not much actually happens in Petite Maman — not much, that is, except for the sharing of a critical moment that both girls will undoubtedly remember for the rest of their lives whether they ever meet again or not. It’s a very particular type of experience that Sciamma has pinpointed here, one that seems ordinary on the surface, but one that the filmmaker has managed to turn into a sort of premature Proustian moment that the girls might remember when their own grandchildren bid them farewell.

It’s a rare and keen accomplishment that Sciamma has pulled off here, one you’re not even aware of until after the fact. The girls do play a board game and poke around a bit in the forest, but they’re not interested in fairy tales or frivolous things; for the most part they speak like grown-ups to an almost unrealistic degree and want to address serious adult issues. As Nelly tells her dad, she wants to know “the real stuff.”

The real stuff confronting Marion that she’s having an operation in three days so that she “won’t be lame like my mom.” On a rather less serious issue of physical change, Nelly talks her dad (an amiable Stephane Varapenne) into letting her help shave off his beard, and the result is decidedly for the better; “You’re handsome,” Nelly decides. A great father-daughter moment.

A bit later, she ambiguously says to him, “I’m your daughter. I come from the path behind you,” a haunting phrase that epitomizes the acutely and poetically observant stance from which the two youngsters are observed. There are times when the dialogue seems far too sophisticated and insightful for girls still in single age digits. Nonetheless, Sciamma is swimming in darkish waters that contain curious observations and mysterious truths, so that, even if you’ve never heard youngsters speak quite the way these two do, their thought processes draw you in and put you on alert as to what further sidelong insights might be forthcoming.

When Nelly’s dad finishes up early and is ready to leave, she talks him into staying over one more night because she’s instinctively aware that, “There won’t be another time.” She and Marion then play a game that’s fraught with meaning and seems borderline unrealistic and serious for anyone of that age to conceptualize or propose. But in the moment, one is inclined to go along with the conceit due to how smartly Sciamma has built up to it.

In all events, this is an arrestingly original and alive creation that offers acute observations and unexpected grace notes.

The Sanz sisters are remarkably unselfconscious and naturalistic, even when reciting dialogue that at times seems rather beyond the characters’ age range and powers of psychological insight. But then these are girls who don’t just wanna have fun but who are aware of life’s mysteries and keen to open a door upon them.

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