Cinematic perfection may be technically unattainable, but good luck finding a flaw with Petite Maman, French auteur Céline Sciamma’s tender and moving tale about a young girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who, while helping her parents clean out the rural home of her recently deceased grandmother, strikes up a friendship with a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks just like her, sounds just like her, and turns out to be her eight-year-old mother.
It’s a magical turn of events, and it forms the basis for Sciamma’s 72-minute children’s fable about loss, grief and the desire to communion with the past and the loved ones who inhabited it. While the mechanics of these supernatural circumstances remain a mystery throughout, less enigmatic are the profound emotional and psychological questions plumbed by Sciamma’s drama, which operates with a subtlety, stillness and insightfulness that’s as bracing as its atmosphere is enchanting and the Sanz sisters’ lead performances are captivating.
In certain respects, Petite Maman is a departure from Sciamma’s prior, heralded Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a 2019 period romance about a blossoming affair between a noblewoman and the artist hired to paint her. Yet like all her work, it remains intimately attuned to the experiences and perspectives of women who are bonded by blood, affection, and circumstance. Conceived before the pandemic but shot during it, Sciamma’s latest is a gentle variation on the time-travel genre, one in which anguish and alienation spark Nelly’s unique relationship with the adolescent mother she never knew—a twist complicated by the fact that Nelly’s adult mom (Nina Meurisse) is presently MIA, thus leaving the girl adrift (despite the presence of her loving father). Quite simply, it’s as impeccable as movies come: tightly contained, expertly executed and overflowing with thorny and universal notions about the ties that bind and the everlasting yearning for togetherness.
On the eve of its U.S. theatrical premiere on April 22, it was our pleasure to speak with Sciamma about the personal inspirations for Petite Maman, the…