Petite Maman Captures the Joy and Grief of Childhood

click to enlarge Petite Maman is about a girl who finds a secret world in the woods after her grandmother dies. - COURTESY OF NEON
Courtesy of Neon
Petite Maman is about a girl who finds a secret world in the woods after her grandmother dies.

A little girl Nelly (Josephine Sanz) loses her beloved grandmother and retreats to her mother Marion’s (Nina Meurisse) girlhood home where the family prepares it for sale.

Playing outside one day, eight-year-old Nelly wanders through the forest and seems to enter into another universe. There she discovers a small home very much like her grandmother’s. And in it lives a little girl Marion (Josephine’s twin sister Gabrielle Sanz) who looks just like her.

There is a dream-like dimension to events as they unfold, in which figures from Marion’s real life are echoed in the people she meets in her foray into the woods.

A delicate, fairy-tale like film with a whiff of metaphysical fantasy, Petite Maman treats love and loss with extraordinarily subtle brushstrokes. Directed by the remarkable French director Celine Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Petite Maman returns to ideas examined in her other films, including the deep connections between women, whether romantic, filial or familial and the complexity of her female characters of every age.

Though it is never stated outright, from the instant you meet Nelly you feel the profound impact of her grandmother’s death. In a gesture that might feel morbid to an adult but feels utterly in keeping with a child’s pure sentimentality, Nelly wants her grandmother’s cane — the hallmark of her life-long disability — and holds onto it as she says goodbye to her grandmother’s friends at her care home. Barely perceptible beneath the surface is the deep, unexpressed heartbreak that children often wear tucked away from adult view. That journey into the woods is a way to recapture that love and connection, a kind of retreat into her own psyche and imagination.

The little girls Nelly and Marion engage in the consuming, delightful projects that engage children. They work on a fort in the woods. Nelly meets Marion’s mother, who walks with a cane. They have a sleepover. A bond forges between the girls that may transport you back to memories of your own intense childhood relationships.

Sciamma has a gift for rendering how the lives and passions of these children can make adults seem almost tangential. While Nelly’s parents are seen, their presence is diminished by the strength of Sciamma’s rendering of the little girl who is undeniably the emotional core of Petite Maman.

This is not a children’s movie but one, instead, that records in exacting detail the unique perception, imagination and even the slower, more prolonged sense of time that defines how children experience the world. It shows respect for its children characters and their depth and sense of gravitas in a way so many films made specifically for children do not. And Petite Maman is also very much a film for adults who want to remember the sensations of childhood that we may have forgotten: the rich bonds, the incredible joy of play, the leisurely way a day unfolds and how the world of your imagination is as rich and vivid as reality.

Petite Maman opens May 6 at Plaza Frontenac's Landmark Theatre.

About The Author

Felicia Feaster

Felicia Feaster is a managing editor at HGTV and an award-winning art, lifestyle and film writer whose work has also appeared in the Economist, Elle, New York Press, Playboy, Travel + Leisure, Art in America and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where she has served as the art critic for the past nine years. She...
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