While Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire was about a pair of lovers whose romance had an expiration date, her new Berlinale film, Petite Maman, is about how everything has an expiration date.
At Seventh Row, we pride ourselves on seeking out the best hidden gems that nobody’s talking about to ensure that our readers never miss a great film again.
In Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature, Petite Maman, getting to know your mother is like chasing after a ghost. Parents are elusive, in life and death, living in an adult world that, as a child, you only ever get to visit. The disconnect between parent and child is in the constantly moving camera of the opening scene, which follows eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as she says goodbye to the many women in the hospital where her grandmother recently died, chasing the goodbye she didn’t get to have with her own grandmother. And in the first moment of stillness, when Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), looks out the window of her mother’s room, at the grass and trees below, exhaustedly resting on a table, as if she might find her mother outside. As the camera pulls back, we feel the weight of Marion’s grief — and Nelly’s absence from the frame. They’re both experiencing loss, but it’s not quite a joint experience. Mother and daughter are moving at different speeds, in different rhythms. The camera reveals Nelly’s perspective, watching from behind, aware of her mother’s slumped physique, but unable to reach it.
Leaving the hospital, Nelly, Marion, and Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) head to Nelly’s grandmother’s house to pack it up and close out that chapter of their lives. The house feels haunted with secrets, the furniture covered with sheets, the contents of the home unknown to Nelly, as the hallways are shrouded in shadows. Like the house in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s a former home for the protagonist’s obsession — be it love interest or parent — and a new place for the protagonist. It’s also a ghost of its former self. The only rooms Marianne (Noémie Merlant) enters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are her own and the kitchen — both devoid of memories — while for Nelly, it’s the house that represents a time in her mother’s life — childhood — now lost, and the home of someone — her grandmother — now entirely gone.
The house unfolds its secrets slowly. The sheets gradually come off the furniture, and the treasures stored within are discovered. On the first night, Nelly watches her mother sort through childhood possessions, like books and school notebooks. She discovers her mother could draw but couldn’t spell. In the coming days, she’ll discover a hidden closet in the wall, more bits and bobs from her mother’s childhood, and other places that hold memories for her mother now lost to time and age.
At bedtime on the second day, Nelly eagerly asks her mother for stories of her mother’s childhood, and her mother remarks, “You always ask questions at bedtime!” “That’s when I see you,” Nelly replies, as if dreading her mother’s quick departure, who shortly steps out of frame after a kiss goodnight. Unexpectedly, her mother soon returns and climbs into bed, seated, with Nelly. But dressed in her day clothes — jeans and a mock-neck red sweater — she still feels out of place. It’s only a matter of time before she leaves.
Throughout most of the film, cinematographer Claire Mathon keeps the camera at Nelly’s eye level, which means her parents tend to appear as legs or stomachs in the frame with her. They need to deliberately bend down to share her space. Mostly, they’re in separate frames, unless either Nelly or one of her parents invade each other’s spaces. In the car, on the way to her grandmother’s house from the hospital, from the backseat, Nelly repeatedly invades her mother’s frame from behind, pushing in to feed her cheetos three times and then offering a juice box, before coming in for a hug around the neck. It’s loving and comforting and yet also suggests a longing to be with her mom, who is separate in the driver’s seat. The closest they come to being at the same level is when Nelly finds her mother on the couch sleeping, and climbs into bed with her. They chat briefly, but even still, Sciamma positions them at right angles: Marion on her side looking down at Nelly, who now is only at a slightly lower level.
In the morning, Nelly’s mother has disappeared without notice, leaving Nelly and her father to do the packing for two or three more days. They discover a solo toy with a ball that Nelly takes outside to play with. When Nelly loses the ball to the forest just beyond, her quest to find it transports her into a semi-magical world. The transition is subtle: the elevated sounds of the leaves rustling and even thunder coming as Nelly crosses an invisible threshold gives a sense of heightened reality. In the forest, she discovers a girl her age who looks just like her (played by Joséphine Sanz’s identical twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz), building a fort like the one her mother told her about making herself as a child. The girl, Marion, enlists Nelly’s help to carry a large log to her destination, and they begin a tentative friendship.
As it starts to pour, Nelly follows Marion home, to a house, glimpsed first in a still shot that Nelly and Marion must enter. As they go through the open gate, turn the corner at the back of the house, and slam the door shut, something has shifted. The house looks just like Nelly’s grandmother’s house, with the same hidden closet, and the same layout, only here, it’s full of objects and life. As they towel off the water with identical towels, stripping off their wet sweaters — Marion’s is red, like Nelly’s mother’s — they both end up in white shirts, with Marion in a turtleneck, again mirroring the style of Nelly’s mother’s sweater from the opening.
“Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to,” says Marion, in character, while playing dress up with Nelly. It’s a statement that resonates with the secrets that are kept between parent and child — not deliberate, but because the child simply wasn’t there when the parent was younger, when the secret was new and could be told. After all, Nelly describes her parents’ childhood to her father as “a secret,” though he insists it’s not been one intentionally. They’re always telling stories to Nelly, but ones Nelly finds inadequate for really understanding her parents. She complains that they’re “just little stories: Christmas presents you had, or if you loved pizza. I don’t know the real stuff. Things that scared you, say.”
As Nelly and Marion’s friendship develops, we begin to suspect, along with Nelly, that Marion is the younger version of Nelly’s mother. Instead of hearing about her mother’s childhood in drips and drabs, through fragmented stories, she suddenly gets to experience what it’s like — something her mother probably no longer remembers fully. She may remember loving hot cocoa, but not making mountains out of cocoa; she may remember cooking crepes, but not the flip that landed the crepe on the dish rack; she may remember the fort, but not the hard work of dragging all the logs to make it. In this magical past, Nelly gets to experience it first-hand, not simply trailing after the younger Marion, as she often does, but in a two-shot with her, sharing the load. Unlike adult Marion, eight-year-old Marion needs Nelly and has time and energy to play with her.
But Nelly will only be at her grandmother’s house for two or three days, and indeed, they finish early and almost leave a day early. When Marion invites Nelly over for a sleepover on the last night, her father suggests, “Another time?”. But Nelly understands that life is fleeting, and this moment with her past mother is fleeting, too: “There won’t be another time,” she explains. So they stay. And in that one evening, Nelly and Marion celebrate Marion’s birthday, make crepes, and have a grand time. Nelly also reveals to Marion her suspicions about their connection. They both know, as do we, that the next day, they’ll have to say goodbye. In the meantime, they enjoy being on level footing. In the process, the young Marion gives Nelly an enormous gift by explaining something her older self never has: “You didn’t invent my sadness.”
While Portrait of a Lady on Fire was about a pair of lovers whose romance had an expiration date, Petite Maman is about how everything has an expiration date. We’re constantly saying goodbye — to moments, to places, to stages of life, and to people, even before they die. Early in the film, Nelly laments not getting to say a good ‘goodbye’ to her grandmother because she didn’t know it would be the last one. Her sort-of time travel grants her the opportunity to be with her grandmother again, and with her mother in a way she could never in the present tense. On her birthday, Marion, now nine, about the blow out the candles, changes her mind and insists that her mother and Nelly sing happy birthday a second time — as if trying to make this moment last longer.
In our 2020 ebook on Sciamma’s work, Portraits of resistance: The cinema of Céline Sciamma, I wrote an essay about Sciamma’s temporary utopias: how she grants her characters these perfect, but fleeting, moments of time in an often difficult world. Like Portrait, which depicts a temporary utopia between two lovers freed from the strictures of society and patriarchy, most of Petite Maman is also about a temporary utopia, in which the ending is written in stone from the beginning. In Portrait, the lovers get to know each other inside out, their bodies and minds. In Petite Maman, Nelly gets to know a part of her mother otherwise locked away from her, if for no other reason than time and place.
Nelly and Marion can meet in this temporary magical world, but only for three days, and Nelly insists on having the third day that was promised to her. The girls are too young to be too preoccupied with goodbyes, especially as they know they’ll meet again in another form. And yet, you could read these three days as Marion’s goodbye to her own mother, having disappeared as an adult so she could reappear as a child and connect with her mother for one last time — and with her daughter in a way she didn’t know how as an adult.
If Petite Maman is also a portrait of resistance, Nelly is resisting the goodbyes she knows she’ll have to make. She says the goodbyes she can — to the other patients, all older women whom we could mistake for her grandmother — when denied the goodbyes she wished she had. She seizes not only the opportunity to get to know her mother as a young person, but learns that she has to seize the day, because you never know when you’ll be saying goodbye for the last time.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch great films like Céline Sciamma’s first Berlinale film, Petite Maman, at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.
Subscribe to the Seventh Row newsletter to stay in the know.
Subscribers to our newsletter get an email every Friday which details great new streaming options in Canada, the US, and the UK.
Discover Céline Sciamma’s films before the 2021 Berlinale with our ebook
Before Petite Maman premiered at the 2021 Berlinale, Céline Sciamma made four features, which we explore in depth through essays and interviews.