Petite Maman: Miami Film Festival Review

Petite Maman

The spectral is everywhere in Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) places death front and center in the opening scenes.  Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother. Nelly’s parents take her to her mother’s childhood home to clear out the place.  Once there, childhood memories echo through the rooms and shadows emanating from tree branches outside remind Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) of her name for such shadows—The Black Panther. 

Given the freshness of her grief, it is all too much for Nelly’s mother.  She abruptly leaves her childhood home, leaving Nelly and her father behind to finish up the clearing of the place.  For the next few days, Nelly explores the magnificent woods surrounding the house. 

One day, something curious catches Nelly’s eye.  A little girl, with a striking resemblance to her, is moving a large branch through the forest.  The little girl introduces herself as Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).  Marion reveals that Nelly is also the name of her own recently deceased grandmother.  Marion invites Nelly back to her place.  Once there, Nelly notices that Marion’s place is eerily similar to Nelly’s mother’s childhood home.  In addition, Marion acts as though she were older than her age.  It is as if an older person were inhabiting Marion’s child body.  Nelly can no longer deny what she senses to be obvious—Marion is her mother in childhood form. 

Petite Maman boasts of two amazingperformances in the form of real-life sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz.  Their performances bring to life their bond, a very particular and special girlhood bond.  One also cannot fail to praise Sciamma’s talents.  You will be hard pressed to find a director capable of creating maximal moods with tools as traditional as story, music, and lighting. 

And my goodness, is the lighting in Petite Maman extraordinary.  Everything from the lighting of rooms during the day, to the shadows in those same rooms at night, to the candles on a birthday cake, and even the dappled light created by the sun as it hits treetops in a forest create a glorious childhood universe.  Couple that lighting in the forest with a wind moving through the trees, giving the forest a rustling life of its own, and you can appreciate how Sciamma creates mood by mere lighting and sound.  Speaking of sound, Petite Maman is devoid of background music for most of its runtime. 

The one time Sciamma uses music, it bursts in a rich cacophony that works beautifully in the context of the scene.  Petite Maman clocks in at less than 90 minutes.  If there is one gripe to be had, it is that even that runtime feels a bit too long for what is a film with a very specific and narrow narrative. 

All in all, Petite Maman is absolutely worth experiencing if for the mere reasons of taking in mood and lighting.  We witness several transformations occurring in the film.  Nelly’s mother transforms into Marion, Nelly and Marion transform a bunch of branches into a hut, shadows transform into recognizable shapes, and even Nelly’s father transforms when he shaves his beard.  Death and absence, Petite Maman seems to be indicating to us, are not absolute.  They may just be transformations.

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A Cuban-American obsessed with documentaries and anything by Kubrick, Haneke, Breillat, or McQueen. If he is not watching films in his hometown of Miami, he is likely travelling somewhere in Asia enjoying okonomiyaki or pho.