Small but mighty

Contained French drama achieves epic emotional effect


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There’s a lot of talk about filmmakers being brave when they make big, long movies. Three-hour epics are routinely described as “daring” and “ambitious.”

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This article was published 07/05/2022 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a lot of talk about filmmakers being brave when they make big, long movies. Three-hour epics are routinely described as “daring” and “ambitious.”

How about the courage it takes to make a small, short movie? Petite Maman (in French, with English subtitles) comes in at a spare, concentrated 72 minutes, without a wasted word or superfluous scene.

Now, that’s audacious, in a modest sort of way.

Lilies Films/Neon Joséphine Sanz, left, and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman

Writer and director Céline Sciamma, whose 2019 drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire became an art-house hit, once again demonstrates her unpredictable vision, with a quietly moving, gently beautiful exploration of childhood, motherhood, memory and grief.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is an eight-year-old girl who has just lost her grandmother. She and her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) have driven to the grandmother’s small rural house — which was her mother’s childhood home — to clean things up and clear out her grandmother’s belongings.

Her parents busy with their practical tasks, Nelly explores the house’s rooms, which carry the imprint of her mother’s childhood. She sleeps in her mother’s old bed, reads through her mother’s old books. After breakfast on the first morning, Nelly announces, “I’m off,” and then trundles out into the autumnal woods, searching for a hut her mother built out of branches when she herself was a child.

Later, in this green and gold forest, Nelly encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), another little girl who is very much like herself. In fact, Nelly and Marion are so much alike we start to wonder what, exactly, is going on.

To say much more might disturb the delicate, poetic pull of this super-compressed story. Petite Maman feels simple but is full of complexities: It is limpidly clear on the surface but enigmatic underneath, lyrically lovely but potentially dangerous, like a dark fairy tale or fable.

Lilies Films/Neon Joséphine Sanz, left, and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman, which has the feel of a fairy tale or fable.

Sciamma patiently explores the world of children. At times, the film’s unhurried, small-scale detail seems almost neo-realist. At other times, there’s an undercurrent that feels odd, unsettling, even supernatural. But it all works together.

There’s not much dialogue, but what’s there is important, examining the psychological world of childhood but also touching obliquely on motherhood. Through Nelly’s brief interactions with her mother, we gather that she is a loving but sometimes absent, sometimes sad parent, with her sadness having some roots in her own childhood.

The film, as hyper-focused as it is, really rests on its child actors. Joséphine Sanz is in almost every scene, and she’s a little miracle. Nelly is not meant to be cute and expressive, that being more of an American take on the under-12 crowd. She is as children often are in European art films, matter-of-fact and somewhat self-contained, leading her own mysterious emotional life. She is never less than compelling, whether she’s drinking cocoa, searching a silent house for a missing parent, or puzzling out enormous emotional truths.

And of course, we are puzzling out with her, in a film that is small but mighty — rather like its protagonist — and wholly original.

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Christopher Smith/Invision Filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is a beautiful, quiet exploration of childhood.
Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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