In every perfect film from Céline Sciamma, the French director opens a porthole. A fleeting snapshot or lesser seen glimpse into the female experience or of women trying to find their way in the world. In Girlhood, her 2014 exploration of that brief, confusing time between childhood and adulthood, a group of Black teenage girls dance uninhibited to Rihanna’s "Diamonds". She won critical acclaim in 2019 with Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a profound love story between two women as well as a heart-stopping celebration of the female gaze. Her latest, Petite Maman, is a gentle gem of a film about three generations of women. Whispered like a secret throughout the duration, Sciamma laments that the ultimate tragedy of human connection is that no matter how much you love someone, you can never fully know them.
After the death of her beloved grandmother, precocious 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), to her childhood home to pack it up. Memories come flooding back and, overcome with grief and stress, her mother leaves Nelly with her dad (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish the job. One day, Nelly is playing in the woods behind the house when she comes across a clearing where a half-finished hut is being worked on by a girl of the same age who confidently waves her over. She reveals that her name is Marion – strangely, the same as Nelly’s mother's – and we quickly connect that it is her mother as an 8-year-old girl playing in the woods. Nelly follows her back to her house and is confused to find it is a spitting image of the very childhood house that they are there to clear out. Inside is Marion’s mother, a kind and quiet woman who walks with a cane. Here, Nelly’s grandmother is still very much alive.
Whether what’s happening is down to the imagination of a young child, a strange refraction of grief, a ghost story or a time-travelling wormhole is left to us to decipher but Sciamma makes sure there is very little weirdness. Just as Nelly befriends the 8-year-old version of her mother and spends time with the younger version of her now-deceased grandmother without so much as a shrug, we instantly accept what we're watching. Magical moments see Nelly and her mother as a little girl, heads tilted together, playing games and giggling. Nelly is experiencing her mother before motherhood, before trauma, before life – as friends and contemporaries. It’s something none of us will ever get to do. The film shows us that the people we love are so much more than the version we get when we meet them at a certain age. We are not the same now as we were five, 10, 20 years ago.
"Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide," says Nelly to 8-year-old Marion at one point. "There’s just no one to tell them to." Back in the real world, her mother is distant and emotionally absent but here, as a little girl, Nelly can tell her mother all the things she wants to say. The people we love can sometimes be right next to us and either we can’t find the words to tell them or they seem so far away that we never bother them with it.
In this same way, Sciamma has created a world where we can rectify the past. In one scene, we see Nelly confess to her adult mother her feelings of guilt at not having said a proper goodbye, not knowing it would be the last time. So when Nelly stumbles across her younger grandmother, hobbling from the effects of a long-term bone disorder, it’s tragic to see – but Nelly gets a second chance. The final goodbye is so gentle and loaded with meaning, prepare to be moved to the verge of tears.
We all know there are ways to show you know someone other than reeling off facts about them. Intimacy can be so ingrained and habitual that it is performed like an automatic dance after years of repetition. At the beginning of the film on their way to the house, without speaking a word Nelly leans forward to feed her mother handfuls of snacks or a sip of juice while she is driving. Amused, her mother tilts her head back to receive. They may never say what they mean to, or need to, or what the other person wants to hear, but their intimacy seems to transcend this. Many viewers will smile and remember the long road trips with parents where they did exactly the same thing.
While her dad’s gentle presence is there, it is very much on the periphery – Nelly helps him shave and they talk in hushed tones to each other – so much like in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the focus is all on Nelly and the magical bond with the women who came before her in the forest. Petite Maman doesn’t have the searing, stop-you-in-your-tracks fire of that film but it packs a hefty emotional punch all the same. It asks, if we met the people in our lives at different ages, would we be more gentle and forgiving of them? Would we choose to be friends with our parents? Yes, coursing through Petite Maman is the reality that we can never know all the inner workings and the fibres that make up our loved ones but Sciamma’s assertion is that it’s better to try – before it’s too late.
Petite Maman will be released in cinemas on 19th November