Petite Maman Review – Oh My Heart! A Sincerely Beautiful Film About Growing Up

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Writer/director Céline Sciamma has long been concerned with coming-of-age tales. With the exception of Portrait of a Lady on Fire most of her directorial efforts have dealt with an aspect of growing up. These films have been thematically rich and at times profoundly heartbreaking. In Petite Maman Sciamma once again returns to the fertile grounds of childhood to tell a magical and beguiling tale rooted in fantasy and the inner workings of a child’s mind.

Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her parents to clear out her recently deceased grandmother’s cottage. Sciamma plants subtle clues that all is not well in the marriage between Nelly’s parents played by Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne. This disconnect is further emphasised when after only one day in the cottage Nelly’s mother leaves. Nelly left mostly to her own devices tries to come up with ways to keep herself occupied whilst her father continues the task of packing up the house.

Nelly appears to be a remarkably self-contained child. Certainly it is implied that she is in some manner gifted. Her ability to rely on herself may in part be her nature but may also be in part due to some fundamental lack in her relationship with her melancholy mother.

Deciding to spend the day exploring the woods surrounding the cottage Nelly comes across a young girl building a hut. As is the way with many children, the girls immediately start to play together. Marion (Gabriel Sanz) looks uncannily like Nelly and too is eight-years-old. Marion eventually invites Nelly to her cottage which is a near precise replica of Nelly’s grandmother’s house. It is there that Nelly twigs that something fantastical is going on and is at first rightly a bit spooked by it.

Curiosity gets the better of Nelly and she seeks out Marion again. The two form an intimate bond that is bound up in game playing and the telling of childhood truths to each other. Marion only has a few days at home before she has to have an operation to stop her from degenerating due to a hereditary illness that her mother suffers from. Nelly only has a few days before her grandmother’s cottage is cleared out and she will have to return home. The children make the most of their time together indulging in boardgames and playing parts in a play they have written. Sciamma purposely shows the audience a vision of innocence, but underneath that is a firm reminder that children see far more than they are given credit for and their understanding is not necessarily limited by their age.

Lensed by Sciamma’s regular cinematographer, Claire Mathon, the film is exquisitely realised. Joséphine and Gabriel Sanz (twins in real life) are shot in a manner that highlights not just their physical similarities but lingers on their faces to allow a range of emotions to flood through to the audience. Mathon brings the woods to fairy-tale life. Her work in the film is infused with the necessary magic to bring Sciamma’s vision to life.

At one point Nelly tells her father that “Secrets aren’t always things we want to hide – there’s just no one to tell them to.” Sciamma lets the film’s secrets unfold in a gentle manner. She wants us to know that there is more to the child’s mind than what adults assume. She weaves a spell over the audience that allows us to meditate on the nature of grief, melancholy, and loss without ever being heavy handed.

Petite Maman once again proves that Sciamma is one of our most accomplished living directors. To be able to transport the audience to the world of childhood without any syrupy overwrought pathos is greatly skilful. Sciamma never lets the children in her story be talked down to or coddled. Precocious as they may be they are given fully embodied personalities. The moments spent in Sciamma’s charming fairy tale are still tinged with the reality of how life can be frightening and disappoint. Nelly and Marion are perhaps preternaturally aware of the workings of the world, or perhaps they are not. Perhaps we as adults underestimate the wise child.

Petite Maman is a sincerely beautiful film. With its slim run time of 72 minutes you’ll wish you had more time to immerse yourself in Sciamma’s world. When the film ended I transported myself back to my own childhood and reminded myself of who I was and what I wanted then. I also remembered my mother and although the memory is bittersweet as she has now passed, I was glad to be given the prompt to recall moments that were indeed tinged with a certain magic. The power of Sciamma’s vision resonates and proves that her understanding of the intricacies of growing up is unparalleled.

Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabriel Sanz, Nina Meurisse

Writer: Céline Sciamma

Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur

Music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier

Cinematography: Claire Mathon

Editor: Julien Lacheray

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