Petite Maman Review: A Lovely Little Slice Of Loss From The Director Of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire [NYFF]

After the lush erotic romance of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," writer-director Céline Sciamma might have chosen to double down on luxurious, emotionally layered dramas like her 2019 Cannes darling. Instead, she does a complete 180 with the intimate, wonderfully low-key family drama, "Petite Maman." Shot entirely during the Covid pandemic and clocking in at a mere 72 minutes long, "Petite Maman" never feels slight despite its short runtime — perhaps because its delicate slice-of-life story is one that manages to handily grapple with loss and grief and the ineffable bonds between mother and daughter, all within the confines of a tender friendship between two young girls.

Those two young girls are Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who meet while playing in the forest outside of their homes. Well, it's not Nelly's home — it's the childhood home of her mother (a quietly fragile Nina Meurisse), which they are staying at for a few days to clean out after Nelly's grandmother had passed away. Both Nelly's mom and dad (a sweet Stéphane Varupenne) barely speak through the process, tiptoeing around the house as if it were made of glass, but Nelly is infinitely curious, settling into the house as if it were her own home and rifling through her mom's old childhood journals as if they were her new favorite bedtime books. She's a little sad by the passing of her grandmother, whom she regrets she didn't get to say a proper goodbye to, but she possesses that childhood innocence that is not yet tainted by the disappointment of life.

So too, does Marion, a girl who curiously looks just like Nelly and who is building a hut in the woods right where Nelly's mother said she used to build one. Marion invites Nelly to her house and it doesn't take long for Nelly to realize that Marion is actually her mother, at 8 years old. There is her mother's childhood house, no longer covered in dust and stripped of its furniture. There are the drawings that Nelly's mother made in journal, now freshly drawn. There is her grandmother (Margo Abascal), younger but face withdrawn and a little sad — already walking with the cane that Nelly kept after her death, due to a nameless terminal illness. And Marion is due to undergo surgery, she tells Nelly over hot chocolate, so that she doesn't suffer the same fate.

Confused by this sudden act of time travel, Nelly politely excuses herself and runs back to her house — which she manages to do by navigating a hidden pathway. But her curiosity gets the better of her, and she returns the next day for another trip down a memory lane that isn't hers.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

The sci-fi elements of "Petite Maman" are left unexplained and unimportant, which is to the benefit of the film. There's a strange magic to it which, like the magic of the woods, is better left untouched. Rather, it's the wholesome friendship that is struck up between Nelly and Marion that unveils itself to be far richer and more interesting than any trick of time and space. Nelly cannot hide her curiosity about her mother and how she changed from the playful child to the closed-off adult she is now. Her mother's absence is not only emotional but physical — shortly into the film, Nelly's father informs her that her mother "left," unable to bear being in that childhood home any longer. It's unclear whether she left temporarily or if it's a more permanent departure, but there's so much left unspoken and so much weight in Nelly's father's words that it might as well be forever.

So Marion becomes Nelly's lifeline, and a happy playmate, though she also bears the first signs of the melancholy that will overtake her as an adult. When the truth finally comes out, it's not so much a surprise to Marion, who is almost resigned to her fate — she's already seen it happen with her own mother, after all. But she offers Nelly the forgiveness that she might have been looking for: "You didn't invent my sadness," Marion tells her.

Twin child actors Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz bear the burden of the emotional weight of "Petite Maman," which is an intimidating prospect for any actor. But both Joséphine and Gabrielle, who play our protagonist Nelly and the young version of Nelly's mother, Marion, respectively, contain a wisdom that we've lost sight of — a childish purity that can see the root of sadness and grief — even though they can sometimes come across as precocious with a capital "P."

Sciamma's frank and honest portrayal of grief filtered through childhood innocence may seem like a departure from the luxurious romance of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," but it's a return to form for the filmmaker of singular coming-of-age dramas like "Tomboy." She finds meaning in the loaded silences, complexity in the closed and dusty spaces, and beauty in the withered branches that make up the hut that Nelly and Marion build together. "Petite Maman" is richer in its simplicity; a lovely slice-of-life tale that knows that loss is so enormous and monumental that we can only linger with it for brief moments.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10