The Child is Mother of the Girl: Petite Maman (2021)

When I was born, my mother and father were 33 and 28 respectively. In my earliest memories they are in their mid- or late 30s. By the time my personality started to become what I recognise, more or less, as the person I am now, they were approaching 60. As a child, I knew my parents as middle-aged people with middle-aged concerns. As a young adult, I saw them moving towards retirement age.

When my mother died, on this day twelve years ago, I was 34. Technically, I knew my mother when she was the age I am now, but I was a different person then. I don’t really know who she was at the time, what she felt. I know that she wasn’t particularly happy. I rarely knew her to be happy. I don’t know whether she was happy as a child.

Sometimes I feel I can barely say that I knew my mother.

Beware of spoilers in the following. None of what I write about the film explains any plot points beyond the first 15-20 minutes, but you may want to find these things out yourself nonetheless.

Céline Sciamma’s latest, Petite Maman (or Little Mother), is a strange beast. Looked at much too literally, it’s a… fantasy drama? Time travel film? In any case, it’s not what I expected after seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire and falling in love with it, as so many did. On the one hand, Petite Maman is a much smaller, seemingly simple film, in scope and in style. Yet it is also the stranger film: in it, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) an eight-year-old girl whose grandmother has just died and whose mother has left to spend some time by herself, meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), another young girl who looks almost but not entirely like herself. They strike up a friendship almost instantly – and very quickly Nelly comes to realise that Marion is her mother, at the same age as she is now.

Perhaps the most striking thing is how none of this is played as outlandish or mysterious. It simply is, and Nelly deals with it pragmatically and sensibly. She quickly understands that this is the past, that the other girl is her mother, and she shares this information with Marion, who accepts it – not unthinkingly, but she trusts her friend. They don’t tell anyone else about it, though: when Nelly takes her new friend to her grandmother’s house in the present, Marion meets Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne), her future husband, who just accepts Marion as his daughter’s friends – and likewise, the younger version of Nelly’s grandmother (Margot Abascal) just welcomes this new girl into her home, prepares dinner for her and for Marion and only remarks how odd it is that her guest has the same name as her own grandmother did.

It is entirely clear that Sciamma’s interest is not in time loops, paradoxes or the like. (In spite of the forest that much of the film takes place in, this is no Dark-but-in-French.) What she is interested in is familial loops, mothers and daughters, the impossibility of knowing one’s parent or child fully, and the wish to do so nonetheless. We are caught in an endless, impossible game of catch-up with our parents: what we experience, they remember at a remove of twenty, thirty years. When we arrive to find ourselves where they were – as young adults, as parents, becoming elderly and fragile – they’re always further down the road. Or they are already gone. We cannot meet them at the point in their lives that we are at ourselves. Except Nelly can.

As I’ve mentioned, Petite Maman seems very different at first glance from Sciamma’s 2019 hit, but there is a thematic kinship. Both films, albeit in different ways, offer their female characters something of a utopia, a world away from the real world, where feelings can be expressed that, for whatever reason, are impossible otherwise. It is clear from the early scenes that there is a strong rapport between Nelly and her mother, but there are things that a grown-up won’t tell their child, just as there are things that a child won’t tell their parent, because they inhabit different worlds and often speak different languages. When Nelly and Marion meet in the forest, these barriers are removed. They know one another, the way that mothers and daughters rarely can (and, more generally, parents and children, though there most likely are gender-specific aspects to Petit Maman that I am the wrong person to speak to).

And all of this is told with a lightness of touch that seems effortless but that certainly is anything but. Sciamma, who both wrote and directed the film, and her young actors handle the material with an honesty and sense of realness that is never foregrounded, never insisted on, and that is all the more breathtaking for it. The film is beautiful and poetic, but never sentimental, woolly or twee. It is funny, perceptive, piercing and sweet. In its way, Petite Maman is as much of a testament of Sciamma’s abilities as Portrait of a Lady on Fire was.

Perhaps we can never truly know our parents, or our children. There is always a barrier there, between adult and child, and while that is perhaps normal, there is also a sadness to it. We inhabit such different worlds. Petite Maman is a fantasy, in that it shows a mother and her daughter that share the same world, however briefly. I wish that we too could explore those woods behind Nelly’s grandmother’s house just the once.

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