Celine Sciamma’s latest film is another evocative immersion in the connective tissue between women. Yet where Girlhood focused on female friendship, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire unfolded a smouldering lesbian romance, Petite Maman, as the name suggests, is about the relationship between mother and daughter. At only seventy minutes, it plays like a cinematic short story and, with the exception of a brief prologue, takes place in a single space, with some fantasy interludes. There are also only a few characters – Nelly, an eight year old girl, played by Josephine Sanz, her mother, played by Nina Meurisse, her grandmother, played by Margo Abascal, her father, played by Stephane Varupenne, and her imaginary friend Marion, played by Gabrielle Sanz, who turns out to be a version of her mother as well. The film starts just after the death of Nelly’s grandmother (none of the adults are given names) and takes place in and around this same grandmother’s house, as Nelly’s mother and father prepare it for sale. Since Nelly’s mother, in particular, is withdrawn in her grief, Nelly is increasingly left to her own devices, free to wander through the woods as her mother did many years before.
From the earliest scenes, Sciamma emphasies the haptic proximities and tactile trajectories that link these three generations of women. In the opening tracking-shot, Nelly goes from room to room in a nursing-home, bidding farewell to a collection of old women who each initially seem like they might be her grandmother, before arriving at an empty room, where her own mother stares, abstracted, out a massive window, at the trees beyond. Sciamma then pulls all the momentum of the tracking-shot into the texturality of this still image, which she holds until it feels like a painting, before the credits finally come up over the top. That fusion of stasis and movement informs many of the tactile moments to come, most of which revolve around Nelly’s relation to her mother and grandmother. Shortly after leaving the hospital, she places chip after chip in her mother’s mouth as she is driving; later that night, at the grandmother’s house, she shines a torch around a room, and turns it off as soon as it illuminates her mother’s face. At these moments, the film seems more like a tactile object than a physical object, an embodiment of the space between these generations of women.
As that might suggest, Petite Maman is quite neorealist in its capacity to capture the dynamic of being a child. Lots of the film involves Nelly doing things alone, waiting for her parents or drifting away from them, among tableaux that exude the calm of still life, but with a restless movement around the edges. Again, that combination of stillness and motion makes for a remarkably embodied performance, and makes the film feel embodied in turn. At times, the mise-en-scene is so quiet that the sound of wind and the sound of breathing have a genuine dramatic import, making it seem as if the camera is also inhaling and exhaling as our surrogate. And all these tactile moments play as deflections or echoes of the mother-daughter embrace, much as Nelly greets the old women in the opening tracking-shot as surrogates for the grandmother she has just lost. Rather than following a regular narrative trajectory, then, the film takes place as a series of tactile surrogates for the mother, or tactile intermediaries with the mother, who becomes increasingly abstracted as the script unfolds.
The most vivid of these intermediaries is Marion, another girl, who Nelly meets in the forest. Nelly bonds with Marion at a tactile level before anything else, willingly helping her to carry a branch along the ground without enquiring what it’s for, or where they’re headed. After a few minutes, they arrive at the ruins of a fort that Nelly’s mother built when she was young, but even then Nelly doesn’t question why Marion is building it, or where she has come from. Even when they go back to Marion’s house, the relationship remains primarily tactile, as they run through the rain, and prepare a meal together. Only when Nelly sees a version of her grandmother sick in Marion’s house do we realise that Marion is a version of her own mother, at exactly the same age. The establishing-shots for both Nelly’s and Marion’s houses turn out to be the same, while the hut becomes their midway point, the nexus of fantasy and reality.
Rather than simply relying on external surrogates or intermediaries, Nelly thus fuses her mother with these surrogates, or reimagines herself as the main surrogate for her mother. This involves recognising that her mother was also a daughter, which tends to happen with the death of a grandparent, which reiterates our parents as children in a very resonant manner. That fusion of Nelly and her mother is only enhanced by Sciamma’s decision to cast Sanz’s sister in the role of Marion, which creates quite an uncanny effect, since the two girls are slightly different in appearance, but identical in demeanor. They could conceivably be twins, but could also just be regular siblings, and this reiterates the strange combination of identity and difference that haunts Nelly’s efforts to understand her mother at her own age.
Conversely, this means that Nelly also takes on the role of mother at times, although the achievement of the film (like that of its neorealist forebears) is that this never makes her seem precocious, or any less a child. Since her mother had her when she was quite young, Nelly senses that her youth remains unresolved, and carefully guides her along the way, observing comically that she wasn’t great at spelling when they go through some of her old school books. She has the same relation to her father, telling him matter-of-factly that “you don’t forget, you don’t listen,” after glimpsing hints that his marriage may be deteriorating. The only thing she can’t quite see is her mother’s greatest fear as a child – the “panther” at the foot of her bed, in reality a concatenation of the film’s own minimal play of light and shade.
In other words, Petite Maman is fascinated with the imaginative leap required for a proper parent-child relationship. On the one hand, children are fascinated by what it would be like to encounter parents when they were the same age, and to commune with them as true equals. On the other hand, good parenting partly means being able to imagine how it felt to be the same age as your children, and speak to them from that place. That mercurial connection is most pregnant (so to speak) around the death of a grandparent, while also producing its own curiosity – to know your grandparent as a parent – at precisely the moment they leave you. In Petite Maman, these mercurial synergies crystallise around the day just before Nelly’s mother had an operation in order to ensure that she wouldn’t develop the condition that ultimately killed Nelly’s grandmother. As these flashbacks converge, Nelly slips between the roles of daughter, mother and grandmother, before Marion, her mother-as-child, confesses that, even at the age of eight, “I’m already thinking of you.” At this point, Nelly truly sees through her mother’s eyes, finally seeing the panther at the foot of the bed.
This vision leads to a brief rupture in the film, as minimalism shifts to science fiction, and the restrained soundscape gives way to an ebullient synth refrain. Nelly and Marion now embark on a boat, sail out onto a lake, and arrive at a giant pyramidal structure that abstracts and apotheosises the home-made hut that marked the meeting-point between their two houses. At this threshold between reality and fantasy, Nelly momentarily discovers what we are all trying to encounter when we imagine our parents in the past – the “music of the future,” the beats and notes of our own lives. Yet Sciamma cuts back just as abruptly to sustained silence, leaning even more heavily into the minimal style of the film, on the cusp of the mother’s operation, as she reassures Nelly that “you didn’t invent my sadness,” before heading to surgery. In its own way, Nelly realises, this has been her mother’s story as much as her own.
Still, the film doesn’t exactly end on a resolved note either. Anything after that magnificent synth scene is bound to be a comedown, partly because the very fact of encountering a parent as an equal in the present divests them of their aura as parent. Hence, in the final scene, Nelly calls her mother by her name, and her mother responds, only for any residual maternal bond to evaporate at this precise moment. All of a sudden, Nelly is alone, and her grandmother’s house is entirely evacuated, devoid of the ghosts that suddenly seem so comforting. The tactile space between mother and daughter can’t be fully traversed, Sciamma suggests, since that will always rupture the fantasy of being absorbed back into our mothers. And so the film ends, tremulously, on the cusp of that fantasy, without quite rejecting or extolling it – a position so precarious the film can barely afford to spend a feature length balancing us there.