Criterion Review: PETITE MAMAN

Petite Maman topped my best films list for 2021, and I wasn’t alone; several critics groups placed it high on their lists for that year. Now Céline Sciamma’s quiet follow-up to her award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire is being released from Criterion in an amazing package. It’s a must have for any fan of the French filmmaker or anyone who adored the film.

Set in an unknown time within the past 35 years – there are modern looking vehicles, but no smartphones to be seen – a small family grieves the recent death of a grandmother. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) bids farewell to her grandmother’s neighbors in the nursing home as her mother (Nina Meurisse, Camille) removes personal items from a room. We see Nelly caring for her grieving mom, feeding her chips from the back seat of a car, softly hugging her neck from behind.

Once they come to her mom’s childhood home, the loss becomes too overwhelming and Nelly and her dad (Stéphane Varupenne, Godard Mon Amour) are left behind to pack up. Nelly wonders if her mother’s departure is temporary or permanent but finds ways to play on her own in the woods behind the house. And there is where she meets young Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), building a tree fort exactly where Nelly’s mom told her she once had.

Sciamma incorporates time travel in the gentlest of ways; there’s no discussion of future repercussions or foreboding feelings. The woods behind grandmother’s house become a portal, with no special effects involved besides seamless editing work by Julien Lacheray (Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Nelly comes to know her mom as a girl and can say a true farewell to her grandmother. The girls construct a fort, make crepes together, play board games, and act out stories together. Imagination and wonder are as central to this family drama as grief and memory.

Petite Maman is a tender, contemplative film. The casting of twins adds to the magic of the storytelling. On the surface the story may seem simple, but the work delves into complex emotions. It’s a film that allows one to appreciate or notice something new with each viewing.

The new director-approved Criterion BluRay includes:

  • trailers for the film
  • My Life as a Zucchini, the 2016 animated feature that Céline Sciamma co-wrote
  • a frank, moving conversation between Sciamma and director Joachim Trier. They discuss the creation of mythology within Petite Maman. Sciamma talks about the 25-day shoot and filming in her hometown. Sciamma comments on working with joy, “I don’t think cinema should be a sacrifice.” After the success of Portrait, she tells Trier, “I don’t want to live that experience again…I’ve done this thing and now I can do differently.” They also touch on COVID’s impact on when Petite Maman was made and the director’s collaboration with composer Para One on the choral piece within the film. This is probably one of the most insightful filmmaker conversations I’ve seen in a Criterion package.
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