A film from the acclaimed French director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Petite Maman was deemed to be the 3rd best film of 2021 by the Guardian film critics. It has a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was the winner of Best Film at the Stockholm Film Festival. It has recently had a BAFTA nomination for Best Film Not in the English Language. After her grandmother dies, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is taken to her mother’s childhood home. While her parents go about cleaning out the house, Nelly explores the surrounding woods. She encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl exactly Nelly’s age and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. The pair become fast friends, constructing a hut together, sharing lunches, and talking over the life transitions both are in the midst of. (Marion is only days away from going to hospital for an operation.) Incrementally, the girls’ eerie similarities yield revelations that merge events of the past with those of the present.
The film runs at a succinct 72 minutes, but never moves faster than necessary. Like Sciamma’s other films (Tomboy in particular), each scene proceeds with a nourishing patience, the atmosphere relaxed. The result is a nostalgic slideshow of moments and memories that continues to flicker in the mind, even summoning tears as if these moving images once belonged to you. The needed hugs, the child feeding the parent crisps as they’re driving, the knowing stares after a shared thought.
All of this would amount to nothing without the naturally absorbing central performances from twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. Their sibling connection sparks an immediate friendly chemistry. Much like the fairytale elements of the film, Sciamma strips back the potential hyperbole (this isn’t Disney) and enhances the realism in their acting. Despite Nelly’s fantasy, her grief still lingers in the air.
And ultimately, Petite Maman is a short film about grief: told from the perspective of a child who doesn’t know how to process it. Sciamma skilfully skirts around the usual funereal clichés, turning the well-worn regret of not saying goodbye into something genuine, abstract and beautiful. The magic of the film is in its possibilities; the sadness from its inevitable submission to the real world. It’s a riveting modern fairytale that cradles your soul and carries it through a mythical land.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall