Petit Maman



Gabrielle and Josephine Sanz in Petit Maman. Image courtesy Madman and Unifrance


PG, 73 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s my guess there are few filmmakers who could make a success of the story of a young girl who goes back in time to meet her mother when she is young, and become her good friend. This sensitive and delicate feature from France shows that while the concept is tricky to manage, it can be done.

It can be done with elegant simplicity, with a cast of actors who understand that less is more, and without nifty, time-travel devices or elaborate, fantasy sets. Neither rabbit holes, nor wardrobe doors that lead elsewhere are necessary for us go along with the idea, just excellent performances to make the implausible, plausible. For the film’s running time at least.

Petit Maman is the latest work from Celine Sciamma, a French filmmaker whose work has made its mark since 2007 with prestigious awards and nominations. In 2014, her coming-of-age drama set among the black communities in Paris, Girlhood, received a sought-after invite to the Directors Fortnight at Cannes but it was her ravishing period drama of 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, that announced her arrival for many. It was a knockout.

In another piece from the writer-director exploring the world of women, Sciamma weaves a story of intergenerational friendship with a tale of grieving and loss.

Nelly (Josephine Sanz), the eight-year-old who is at the heart of this warm and sensitive drama is left to her own devices while her parents manage the estate of her grandmother, who has just passed. While they clear the room at the old folks’ facility, Nelly engages with the other ladies who she appears to have got to know while visiting.

There is more to do at the grandmother’s house. It needs to be cleared and made ready for sale. Grandmother kept everything so there is lots to sort, from childhood drawings to board games, to paddle ball sets, to other stuff. And there is lots to process in the memories revived for Nelly’s maman (Nina Meurisse) in what was once the family home.

With a few simple, effective changes to the mise-en-scene, the crew established different timeframes through which the narrative moves back and forth with ease

When Nelly heads into the nearby woods to retrieve a lost ball, she comes across another girl who asks her for help to build a cubby house. It is a hut of slender branches built within a square formed by four trees, the very space that Nelly’s mother described where she used to build hers. Of course, the new playmate suddenly arrived is Marion, her own mother while only an eight-year-old child.

A friendship blossoms between the two girls. There is a cubby in the woods, they like dress-ups and make-believe, and they make pancakes for breakfast together after a sleepover. The simplicity of it all is a sweet reminder of how childhood once looked before the digital age came along.

Nelly and Marion are the mirror images of each other, though we know who’s who because Nelly typically wears dungarees and has a more clipped manner of speech. Marion is played by Gabrielle Sanz, Josephine’s identical twin, and the two sisters perform for the screen with an easy synergy.

As to which time period we are in, filmgoers can check décor like the kitchen wallpaper so they know. With a few simple and effective changes to the mise-en-scene, the film crew have established the different timeframes through which the narrative moves back and forth with ease.

It gradually becomes clear there is something else going on that is not clearly defined until the film’s closing scenes, when a darker note is introduced suggesting the fate of Nelly’s mother. It may be another loss for Nelly and her dad (Stephane Varupenne) to cope with.

Sciamma, a bold and innovative filmmaker, has attempted something ambitious here but she could have done more with it. Petit Maman seems a little less than the full deal. Not because of the running time, a little over an hour, but because it feels a bit slight. Cool idea, delivered off-the-cuff.

Off the back of the ecstatic reviews, including mine, for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it seems Petit Maman has become something of a critics’ darling too. I had hoped for some more insight and depth with the development of this wonderful dramatic idea but it’s a bold concept that could still do with fleshing out.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 May 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes