Do you remember late February/early March of 2020? It feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? For a lot of people, or at least certainly for me, it feels like the last normal days before the chaos we still live through hit like a freight train. I bring this up not to bring the mood down (though sorry for that side effect), but to remind you that one of the last great things to happen was the release of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a gorgeous and overwhelming film which dropped me dead on my first viewing and has continued to do lasting damage ever since. It was also the last film I saw in a cinema before the pandemic forced them all to close, so it quickly secured a strong place in my heart. In that period since, while most of us were slowly collapsing inside, Sciamma made her newest film. It is Petite Maman and its appearance in cinemas is akin to installing a fireplace in every screen it plays.
Part of the magic of Petite Maman is that it uses science fiction tropes in gentle and effortless ways.
The story is simple. After her grandmother’s death, a young girl joins her mother in clearing out the grandmother’s house. While here, the young girl goes on an adventure. She discovers things in the house, little creations in the woods outside and then discovers a new friend. I think for the purpose of my review, I’m going to keep the identity of this friend secret. Petite Maman is a very short film and so while it wouldn’t exactly be a spoiler to reveal the identity, I want to give you as much to discover as possible. What I will say though is that part of the magic of Petite Maman is that it uses science fiction tropes in gentle and effortless ways. Don’t get me wrong, I love full blown sci-fi, but I am also in love with seeing the genre applied to low-key situations. Chances are, most people won’t even consider this film to have sci-fi elements, but that’s just one example of how many things are going on under the deceptively light surface.
There are very few actors in Petite Maman. Sure, part of that is the smallness of the story, but there is also the fact that this film was filmed during the pandemic. That such a moving picture can come from such a terrible time feels special on its own, but the lack of cast list means the few actors who are here need to pull their weight. Pull they do. Nina Meurisse is wonderful as the mother, but the impact of the film ultimately comes down to the stellar work of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who play the two young girls. Often, child actors are complimented on their performances because there’s a maturity to their performance that is uncommon for young actors. With the Sanz sisters, it is the exact opposite. They perfectly embody that eight year old spirit of being still too small for the world, but assuming a familiarity that imbues them with a confidence. It is one of those things that is hard to verbalise but on screen, easy to love. In a year when there’s been a lot of great child performances, these are easily the best.
I love the gorgeous simplicity of everything about Petite Maman. It extends into every aspect of the filmmaking and creates an absolutely effortless feeling film. The fleeting runtime I’ve already mentioned, but it’s present in the score too. Like the other of Sciamma’s films that I’ve seen, there is very little music used, but it is saved for moments that can create the maximum impact. In particular, a moment where the girls put on a pair of headphones is gorgeous, featuring solely non-diegetic sound to create an otherworldly level of emotional catharsis. I don’t talk about this a lot because in many films it’s hard to notice, but I also adore the editing of Petite Maman. There’s a famous moment in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence blows out a match and it cuts to the desert, often referred to as one of the greatest cuts in cinematic history. I think Petite Maman has a moment that comes close. It has many brilliant moments where Sciamma chooses to cut a moment short or let it hang, but there’s one in particular that I am perpetually failing to forget.
I think Petite Maman is a minor miracle of a film.
In honour of its 72 minute runtime, I’m going to keep my thoughts on Petite Maman short and end here. I think it’s a minor miracle of a film, an aching act of perfection that I’m desperate to return to. You owe it to yourself to check it out. I’m in love with it, a film which I think could be the finest of the year. If it isn’t at the top of the pile come the end of December, that only speaks to the brilliance of cinema in general this year, as Petite Maman deserves to be (and should be) remembered for years to come.
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