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The French writer-director Céline Sciamma has been making beautifully observed, empathetic films for more than a decade. She began her career with a delicate coming-of-age trilogy, presenting a young woman’s sexual awakening (Water Lilies), the struggles of a gender non-conforming child (Tomboy) and a teenager’s entry into a Parisian gang (Girlhood). Despite her immense critical acclaim, it wasn’t until 2019 that Sciamma really shot to international stardom with the success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her smouldering lesbian romance that has inspired fan fiction, tattoos, SNL parodies and a legion of admirers known as Portrait Nation. Looking back on it now, Sciamma is still processing her escalating fame. “Oh my God,” she gasps at the memory. “It was one of the best years. Very intense, it kept becoming more and more overwhelming. It was quite beautiful to watch people connecting with the movie. I received a lot of messages from all around the world – because there’s a fandom, it’s a community. Then everything stopped, you know? It definitely feels like a climax because it was interrupted.”
After a landmark year of film festival-hopping to promote Portrait – her personal highlight was “sharing the road with Bong Joon Ho and the team of Parasite” for the US leg of the press tour – Sciamma, like the rest of us, was halted by the pandemic and found herself indefinitely landlocked in France. To keep occupied, she started working on the screenplay for her next film, the concept for which had come to her in a dream. “This was the first time that’s ever happened to me,” she admits, dragging on a cigarette. “The idea really popped into my mind. I saw two young girls building a treehouse together, and they were a mother and a daughter. I think that’s why I have a special relationship with this film because I met it in a way.”
Rapidly shot in the height of the pandemic and premiering at the Berlinale in March, Petite Maman tenderly explores themes of grief, companionship and motherhood through eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who is helping her parents clear out her grandmother’s home in the wake of her death. When kicking around autumn leaves in the woods one day, she comes across Marion (Joséphine’s identical twin Gabrielle) hauling logs to build a treehouse; the pair, who we soon discover are mother and daughter, become fast friends. Much like Sciamma’s previous work, Petite Maman is quiet and considered. It offers an incredibly textural, tactile experience of childhood, paying close attention to hot, thick milk poured from a saucepan for cocoa, the swaying flames of birthday candles, crumbs dusting a tartine. Sciamma – who had previously enthralled children with her heartfelt script for the beloved claymation My Life as a Courgette – was keen to release the film quickly as she hoped it would provide solace for youngsters whose loved ones had died of Covid. “I wanted to do it within this pandemic because we were losing our elders and we couldn’t say goodbye. Children really, really connect to the loss of the grandmother in Petite Maman, whereas adults are much more about the bonding with the mother.”
The auteur’s minimalist writing style works well with this material, since its broad-stroke characterisations allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with their own lived experience, resulting in a stronger emotional response to the film. “I’m not really a writer who writes characters,” she says. “They don’t have backstories, they don’t even have names in some cases. We don’t know much about this family, and that’s a way for the audience to connect to it and have room for their own childhoods, to enjoy the pleasure of ideas and participate in the grammar of the film. For Nelly, I never asked myself what an eight-year-old’s situation is, I just wrote the character as a full individual. You could take all her dialogue and put it in an adult’s mouth and it would work. The movie is advocating for kids because we’re looking at them as serious, philosophical human beings.” Petite Maman’s visual language reflects this intention: rather than viewing its young protagonists from above, Sciamma’s camera crouches down to Nelly and Marion’s eye level, positioning us at their height as they make pancakes and play dress-up and let out tinkling little laughs.
Although many have related to Petite Maman’s charming universality, the movie proved especially personal for its writer-director. For the first time since her debut Water Lilies, Sciamma shot in her hometown of Cergy, a north-westerly suburb of Paris. Returning to such a familiar location as a film-maker did “bring up some emotions”, but it also made it easier to create the enchanting, storybook aesthetic she was aiming for. “As the film was magic realism, I needed to do it in a place where I could think about tricks and bring fiction to. Being there was really comfort[ing] for me, it felt close to my childhood. We were having lunchtime at my preschool, so suddenly I was in a reality I hadn’t thought of for years. I was building a treehouse where I used to build one as a kid and the metaphor got too much!”
The film certainly encourages nostalgia from its grown-up viewers, and yet its chief fascination might just be its nonchalant approach to the supernatural. This is a time-travel movie at its most domestic: there are no DeLoreans or agreed-upon gestures, simply two little girls from different generations enjoying each other’s company. “At first, I didn’t even think of it as a time-travelling film,” says Sciamma. “It’s not about going to the past or the future, it’s about the present, so it’s about presence. I don’t play with the traditional narrative of will I go back, how will I go back or any of the technical aspects. It’s about the opportunity of spending intimate time together.” This remark brilliantly summarises her entire body of work. As an artist, Céline Sciamma gets to the heart of deep emotions and laces them through her films for memorable, sensorial cinema-going experiences. Petite Maman is no exception.
‘Petite Maman’ is out now.
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