Petite Maman (2021)
Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma truly wowed me and many others with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a complex romantic film about two women unable to have the sort of love they wanted under the social constraints of their time. The premise could have been played so bland, but Sciamma injected it with life and energy few films have. That led to a heart-breaking finale that lingers with the viewer long after. I was excited when I learned of her newest film, Petite Maman. She had been such a fantastic filmmaker I was curious to see what she did next. When I discovered the movie was about the rocky relationship between mother and daughter, something ripe to be explored with a lot of emotional depth, I needed to see it. Sadly, what we got was a complete waste of time.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is an eight-year-old girl whose grandmother passed. Her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), is having a tough time processing the death, especially when the family cleans out the grandmother’s home. At a certain point, it becomes too much, and Nelly wakes up to have her father tell her mom has left for an indeterminate time as the cleaning continues. Nelly begins wandering in the woods and comes across a new playmate, a neighbor girl (Gabrielle Sanz), a little girl that looks like her and has her mother’s name. Through some sort of magic, Nelly can meet Marion when she was a little girl, and she gets to know her mother as a person rather than just an authority figure or caregiver. I love everything about this on paper, yet Sciamma presents a concise movie (just over 70 minutes) and an utterly emotionless production.
The press releases for Petite Maman cite Hayao Miyazaki as a prime influence, and I get that. The setting and concept feel like something you might see in one of Miyazaki’s gorgeously animated pictures. However, Sciamma comes nowhere close to evoking that same sense of warmth and joy you find in those movies. I keep stepping back from the picture in an attempt to survey it, figuring out why some critics are raving about it while I and others find it an overwhelming disappointment. It’s not a total disaster. From a technical perspective, it is flawless. Sciamma knows how to frame a shot, and the movie exudes warmth with its visuals. But that is contrasted to a fault by the wooden performances from almost every person in the cast. The only moments that feel genuinely nice are when the two girls are being filmed doing something like making pancakes, and you can tell that this is unscripted. They were just meant to do a non-scripted thing, so their natural kid-ness comes out.
The length of the movie is a significant problem. Half the film sets up the situation with the grandmother’s death and scenes of Nelly wandering through the old house or the woods. By the time we meet young Marion and the basic concept of the story kicks in, there is barely any time left. There are many scenes of the two girls building a fort in the woods or drinking hot chocolate, but they feel so uncomfortable when they are acting that I didn’t feel the actual themes of the story were able to be successfully explored. I became very frustrated over the lack of emotion all of these characters expressed as they were going through times of loss. I understand not everyone cries, but you would think out of some of these people, some tears would be shed. Even a moment where a seemingly stoic person bursts into tears and wails would have had some emotional resonance, seeing how everyone comes to a point where they must let their grief flow in a different form.
There are some excellent moments. Like I said before when the kids are just kids, and Sciamma is filming it, the movie is fantastic. The lighting and color are spot on, evoking a warmth out of fall, a feeling not generally associated with that season. My favorite moment of the picture was the brilliant opening scene. Nelly completes a crossword with an old woman; we assume it’s her grandmother. She excuses herself and goes out in the hallway only to say goodbye to another old woman in another room. After a few more rooms, Nelly finally comes to one where her mother is packing up the last belongings. We realize these are residents of an elder care facility she knows, and she’s saying goodbye because she won’t be coming back. It’s a really clever way to start the movie. I just wish we had seen that carry into the rest of the film.
The end result is that Petite Maman feels incredibly shallow for something that should have more considerable depth. I get that Sciamma is coming out of a school of modern French realism like Olivier Assayas. These films go beyond a slice of life or slow burn; they sometimes become drudgery to get through. I don’t think they are failures of cinema; their tone just doesn’t jive with my own sensibilities. I won’t be writing Sciamma off, though. Working with children as the primary performers might not be the best choice with this type of material.