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Petite Maman (2021) – Review – A Delightful and Absorbing Fantasy by Director Céline Sciamma

April 26, 2022

Quick thoughts – Grade – A –  Petite Maman is an absolute delight that is filled with warmth, charm and excellent performances. It was one of my favorite 2021 films and I hope people go see when it hits theaters. Director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) has been on a tear lately, and she’s working on all cylinders here. 

What I love most about Petite Maman is how Sciamma wants you to absorb the onscreen emotions, and she rarely ever telegraphes or holds your hand through the brisk 72-minute running time. She lets the scenes play out in long takes that features interogations, pancake making, and a wonderful moment involving snack food and a juice box. The fantasy is never explained, and it doesn’t need to be because that’s not the point. The point of the film is to explore grief, loss, and childhood illness through the eyes of two precocious children.

Petit Maman focuses on an eight-year old named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who travels with her father (Stéphane Varupenne) and mother (Nina Meurisse) to clean out the home of her recently deceased grandmother. During some downtime she starts exploring the nearby forest and she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) a girl who is similar in age and happens to be building a makeshift fort in the woods. After a few minutes of fort construction it starts to rain, so Marion takes Nelly back to her house, which happens to be the same exact house that Nelly was just cleaning out. After a brief tour to make sure the house is exactly the same and the secret doors are where they should be, Nelly learns that Marion is her mother and she has entered into another timeline where she and her mom are the same age. It’s magical realism at its finest and it’s neat to know that Sciamma drew from Miyazaki, Back to the Future, and Big for inspiration. Also, it was very refreshing to see this world from the viewpoint of Nelly, a wildly inquisitive child, who when adults don’t want to explain something to her because it’s “child’s stuff,” she responds with “I’m interested. I’m a child.”

Sciamma made this film during the pandemic, and it never feels like a movie filmed during a pandemic. Sure, the settings are isolated and the cast is small, but the movie has a universal feeling that doesn’t feel constrictive. Instead, the isolation and small cast draw you in because there isn’t much to distract you or pull you out of the experience. Sciamma purposefully didn’t rehearse the scenes with her young actors and that decision paid off because the performances of the two actors (who are sisters) feels natural and are a big part of why the experience is so successful. When the movie ends (with a hug) it’s almost disappointing because it means you have to leave a world you like, and that is a rare feeling. Very rarely do I find myself totally absorbed in a movie, and off the top off my head only Take Shelter, The Truman Show, The New World, Murderball and Portrait of a Lady on Fire come to mind. 

Another positive about Petit Maman is that it reunites Sciamma with recent Academy Award nominee Claire Mathon (Spencer, Atlantics, Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Mathon is an excellent cinematographer and in this movie she makes sure that the focus is on the characters, but she still finds ways to make hallways, fallen leaves, and wood piles look appealing while never losing focus on the performances. The movie is shot very intimately, and that makes sense considering the material is so intimate. 

Final thoughts – Watch this movie.

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