Petite Maman – Sydney Film Festival Review

Mothers, Daughters, And Time Travel?

I’ve had Celine Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire on my watchlist since it came out in 2019 and still haven’t found a moment to sit down to watch it. To make up for this, in my own mind, I added Petite Maman Sciamma’s latest directorial credit to my Sydney Film Festival billing. Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival in March and selected for the official Sydney Film Festival Competition this year, Petite Maman tells the story of Nelly who while searching for an old fort at the back of her mother’s childhood home finds the younger version of her mother, Marion, building that very fort.

The film reflects on childhood in such an authentic yet magical way. The openness to imagination and play coupled with the lingering fears we have as children are all explored in the strange friendship that grows between the two young girls. It is a strange friendship because it represents the mother-daughter relationship between Nelly and Marion in a way that provides Nelly a unique way of understanding her mother’s past and pain in their present-day relationship. After the passing of her paternal grandmother Nelly’s family travels to her mother’s childhood home and over the course of a few days clears the house of all its belongings giving Nelly a new perspective after she meets with 8-year-old Marion and gets to explore her version of the house from the past.

Director Celine Sciamma

The time travel aspect is something that is never explained. It’s never discussed if any of what we see is real or imagined, a metaphor for Nelly and her mother’s relationship. Leaving this open to interpretation is a positive of the film’s storytelling however, as it leaves more space for the character’s relationships to be the main focus instead of complicating the essence with sci-fi mechanics.

Speaking of the story, the script is written in such a way that no line is ever wasted. Everything has a purpose that moves the story along by revealing more about the characters within. As such the pacing moves comfortably each scene never outstaying its welcome. Part of this is the film’s use of silence both in spacing between dialogue and in the film’s lack of soundtrack. There is one song close to the end that impacts all the stronger due to the overall lack of any other music. I only noticed the rest of the film had been silent when the song came on showing how powerful the lack of soundtrack was in making me focus on the dialogue and observe every detail in each frame of the film. By choosing to do this Sciamma gives mundane tasks weight including scenes from brushing teeth to eating cereal and walking in a forest.

The cinematography by DOP Claire Mathon is stunning making the everyday look incredibly picturesque and the autumnal reds, oranges, and browns of the French wilderness pop effervescently. The film was shot during the pandemic, which meant the locations were limited and the cast was small, but this is not detrimental to the story at all, in fact it is the opposite creating an intimate concise story in a runtime of only 1 hour and 12 minutes. The actors play their roles very naturally including the young actresses for Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who were in fact twins. The family vibe was expertly achieved with a combination of serious and humorous moments between both present and past families due in equal parts to the well written script and actor’s performances.

Director Celine Sciamma on set of Petite Maman

It was nice to see the range of demographics that were in the cinema with me watching this film including two girls who sat behind me who would’ve been around the age of the girls in the film. There is a scene where Nelly and Marion messily make pancakes together and their authentic giggling became infectious with most of the theatre giggling along. Hearing real life laughter from 8-year-olds behind me accompanying the giggles on screen was such an authentic and beautiful moment that just speaks to the impact of the film to touch the audience in a way that invokes physical response akin to your own inner child.

With a fantastically written script, perfect performances, and the right balance of reality and magic, Petite Maman explores the mother daughter relationship in a unique and enchanting way that I had not seen done before. If you get the chance to watch this delightful film from visionary Celine Sciamma, I highly recommend you do.

The final screening of Petite Maman is Friday 12th November and you can book tickets HERE

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