Cinematic perfection may be technically unattainable, but good luck finding a flaw with Petite Maman, French auteur Céline Sciamma’s tender and moving tale about a young girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who, while helping her parents clean out the rural home of her recently deceased grandmother, strikes up a friendship with a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks just like her, sounds just like her, and turns out to be her eight-year-old mother.
It’s a magical turn of events, and it forms the basis for Sciamma’s 72-minute children’s fable about loss, grief and the desire to communion with the past and the loved ones who inhabited it. While the mechanics of these supernatural circumstances remain a mystery throughout, less enigmatic are the profound emotional and psychological questions plumbed by Sciamma’s drama, which operates with a subtlety, stillness and insightfulness that’s as bracing as its atmosphere is enchanting and the Sanz sisters’ lead performances are captivating.
In certain respects, Petite Maman is a departure from Sciamma’s prior, heralded Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a 2019 period romance about a blossoming affair between a noblewoman and the artist hired to paint her. Yet like all her work, it remains intimately attuned to the experiences and perspectives of women who are bonded by blood, affection, and circumstance. Conceived before the pandemic but shot during it, Sciamma’s latest is a gentle variation on the time-travel genre, one in which anguish and alienation spark Nelly’s unique relationship with the adolescent mother she never knew—a twist complicated by the fact that Nelly’s adult mom (Nina Meurisse) is presently MIA, thus leaving the girl adrift (despite the presence of her loving father). Quite simply, it’s as impeccable as movies come: tightly contained, expertly executed and overflowing with thorny and universal notions about the ties that bind and the everlasting yearning for togetherness.
On the eve of its U.S. theatrical premiere on April 22, it was our pleasure to speak with Sciamma about the personal inspirations for Petite Maman, the French film industry’s attitudes toward female directors, and her 2020 decision to walk out of the César Awards (aka the French Oscars) in protest of Roman Polanski.
Do you think you’d get along with your own mom, as a child? I assume that question—and fantasy—was the starting point for the film.
Yes, the starting point creatively was this image of two little girls playing, being the exact same age, playing together as equals, and being a mother and daughter. That image was both very peaceful, very soothing—like an opportunity for very intense and beautiful shared feelings—but it also felt very, very troubling. It was like a form of enigma in this situation, and it’s because it’s a myth, I guess. Myths—it’s the intention of a question, and it’s the opportunity of a world where there are new rules, and I think the film is doing that. It’s looking at the full opportunity of that new rule, not actually knowing where it would land. I wrote this quite candidly, like, what if? So yes, that would be my personal answer to that. That’s how I imagine myself with my own mother at that age.
Among other things, the film is about the childhood process of learning to say goodbye—which is universal and can be quite jarring. Was that idea also a part of your inspiration?
I think Japanese animation is all about kids learning to say goodbye, or people just learning to say thank you. Maybe it’s the same thing, goodbye and thank you—it’s an acknowledgement of the other. The films that inspired me for Petite Maman, and by inspired, I mean they gave me some kind of courage because they existed, were My Neighbor Totoro, and all of Miyazaki’s films, and also a film by Mamoru Hosoda named Wolf Children. Those are films that deal with the big goodbyes of childhood, because I think childhood is about learning about the fact that time passes. Like [Andrei] Tarkovsky said before me, I think all films are a sculpture of time. And they are an opportunity to sculpt the time differently. So, I think all films talk about goodbyes. The way films end really talk about the fact that, are they saying goodbye to you, or are they not? Are the characters saying goodbye? I tend to do films where, in the end, the film is saying goodbye to you, and also, the characters are saying goodbye to each other. This could be a definition of cinema for me, in a way.
At what point in the creative process did you decide that the magic-realist crux of the story—that Nelly meets her mother Marion as a child—would go unexplained, versus addressing it in a more straightforward way?
That’s a very good question, because that was the biggest decision in the process of making the film. What I felt intuitively while I was writing this was that it would be very straightforward. But in the process of writing the film, I was looking for a moment where the secret is revealed, and that’s when I realized I was actually supposed to write a film about time travel. But I hadn’t seen it like that at all! I was kind of embarrassed by the time-traveling dramaturgy, because we all love it very much, and I’m a kid cinephile from the ‘80s so I’ve basically been brought up by Back to the Future—which I know by heart, and really, really admire the dramaturgy of the film, which I’ve studied a lot. So, it’s not that I wouldn’t love to do that, but it’s just that it wasn’t the sculpture I was looking for.
It would have made the film a chapter longer, and that wasn’t the sculpture I was looking for. And it would imply some form of conflict. That’s the time that I decided that the film itself would be the time-traveling machine, and that it would create a common space in time, rather than a past, a present, and a future that you have to travel within; a common space in time, and that they would harvest that common space in time simply by believing each other. Simply by believing each other! And by just saying the truth. The opportunity of the truth seems obvious in the time-travel movie, in a way—it’s fabulous that you should tell the truth, to really, really be there, rather than talking about the fact that you just landed and that you have to leave. That engaged the whole artistic direction of the film, because that’s also when we decided that the sets wouldn’t age or wouldn’t be different in the past or in the future, and also that the film would be timeless, which is super-weird for a time-traveling film. Like, it can’t work. But we managed to make it work by being really radical, and strongly believing that this would produce a high level of intimacy.
There’s a specificity to many of the film’s details, be it Nelly feeding her mom while driving, or finding the hidden cupboard in the house, or the tree fort. How much of that was mined from your own childhood?
The body language, and the comedy, of childhood, and the first ten minutes of the film—like when she feeds her mother in the car—is the moment when the film is really, really trying to be anchored in some form of reality. I tried to remember some fetish moments from my childhood to fuel this reality. But then the film switches to magic realism, to a form of daydream, and it was a decision to not fuel it with too many details about the family. You know, we don’t even know the name of the father, and we don’t know their backstory, and nobody’s asking too many questions about the future or the past, so that viewers can live the situation but it can really be their story.
You have to be very generous; the film makes you give away your story, in a way. And that’s also why I chose not to be too fetishist about my childhood and my own story, so the film would be very welcoming for all types of situations. If your parents are dead or alive, if you’re talking or not, if you have a good relationship or a bad relationship, the film can be the shelter of your story. That was also the politics of the film.
You’ve spoken in the past about the female gaze, and Petite Maman seems attuned to not only the female gaze, but the female experience—of being a young girl, of dealing with a distant mother, of figuring yourself out on your own. Is there greater space to explore such issues in film today, compared to when you first began writing/directing fifteen years ago with Water Lilies?
I don’t know—yes and no. In a way, those ideas, they are appearing more and more in fiction, because the market took those ideas. Any platform content will be more politically aware than ever in my life, and as someone who watches fiction, I can see those ideas—and even if it’s cynical, I don’t care. It would be cynical anyway; it was cynical when they were very brutal ideas. But does that leave more room for radicality in the arts, and the poetry of those ideas, and does it make more room for radical voices and independent filmmaking? I don’t know.
“But does that leave more room for radicality in the arts, and the poetry of those ideas, and does it make more room for radical voices and independent filmmaking? I don’t know.”
This is linked to the state of the industry, and COVID has put this crisis on a climactic level. Plus, we are in the middle of a backlash, since this cultural revolution that you mention really rose and expanded. So, we’re in the middle of something [laughs]. What I can say from my perspective is that we can rely now on international support and international attention on our work, which is good, and which also means there’s solidarity—which means it’s needed.
You made headlines by walking out of the Césars in protest of Roman Polanski, but at the same time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was being celebrated, and Titane has since won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Given those opposing old guard-new guard forces, what is the current state of the French film industry as it relates to female-driven filmmaking? Is there a positive transition taking place?
This transition, and those two forces, are happening at the same moment. I think it’s the same everywhere, it’s just that in France, there’s a very, very strong system of support for films, and independent cinema, and there’s big funding, so there’s a lot of newcomers. But we’ll see, the turn that the industry will take.
We can’t tell. In France right now, we’re in the middle of a very difficult political moment, in-between the two rounds of our presidential election. Far-right is at the door, extreme right is at the door, white supremacists are at the door, so I can’t tell you about the positive over the negative outcome right now! I’m just looking very, very carefully at things, and trying to think about it.
Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman features no traditional musical score. What is it about stillness and quiet that speaks to you?
Music is one of the tools for creating a common space in time. Because, for instance, a song in editing creates unity, even if it will go over ten locations in a clip. So, it could have been a way. But I really wanted to work on the soundtrack of the film, to create a common space in time through the sets and nature; that’s also what we were doing with the lighting in the film, to create a very strong continuity. The beauty of sound editing is that we shot in studio, so the entire sound atmosphere has been invented afterwards. And the fact that the house has the exact same sounds in the present and the past, and that there are strong notes like a spaceship that’s rumbling—it’s part of the grammar of the film. This film is designed to be seen in cinemas with people, and that kind of silence, and that kind of soundtrack, you listen to the film in a very different way, because you also hear yourself, and the presence. So, it really depends on how you want people to listen and to be at attention with the film. The lack of music on the soundtrack is a way to put viewers in a very active situation.
Did you always plan on making a feature that was this short? I think it’s the perfect length and lends it a fable-esque quality.
Yes. It had to be straightforward, because I wanted the film to be really, really emotional, and if it went on for a long time, that could be tiring. I wanted the film to be seen by kids, and that they could sit through it very easily, and that it could be identified, at that length, as a film for kids. And also, because it’s designed as twenty-four-hour experience, it’s like a shot. I really wanted to design it as this shot, and you would carry it back home with you, and then it includes your night, and your dreams. That was the little design.