No one captures the spirit of childhood in all of its complications, imperfections and gentleness quite like Céline Sciamma, and Petite Maman playing in competition at Berlinale is no exception.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) wanders through the halls of a nursing home saying goodbye to all the residents for the final time, stopping in the last empty room where her mother sits on an bare bed. Her grandmother has just passed away and Nelly and her parents must begin the process of clearing the house, her mother’s childhood home. In the woods where Nelly’s mother Marion built a treehouse, Nelly finds a young girl constructing a hut around a trio of trees. Her name is also Marion (Gabrielle Sanz).
At the heart of the film is the grief that lingers in the atmosphere long after death. The slow restructuring of the family dynamic that goes along with the death of a matriarch, the tactile reminders of their presence in the house they lived in: a walking stick which “smells of her hands”, the faded wallpaper behind a dresser that was decorated around, everything that feels so familiar and yet different.
It is in this space that Nelly discovers the memories and images of her mother’s childhood that she is reluctant to talk about, through Marion. She moves through the past version of the house with an ease, opening cupboards and drawers that she knows will respond to her touch, knows what to find in them and yet is still in this unknown space that is not quite the same.
Nelly and Marion, free from the burdens of age that are to come and not yet worn by her own mother’s constant reinteration that she is going to die soon from the hereditary illness that haunts the family, are able to become friends in that fast, binding way that comes so easily to children. There is awareness of their true relationship to each other that only serves to reinforce that saying that “daughters grow up to become friends”.
Sciamma and cinematographer, the always excellent Claire Mathon, fill the screen with colour. This is a film that plays with reality, a quiet magic that seeps in through the luminous oranges and reds of the autumn leaves, the glimpses of a glowing sunset, the bright patterns of a 70s colour scheme. This house, and the film itself, rests in a liminal space that speaks to the universality of grief, the patterns it has, does and always will follow. Sciamma has spoken about how she wanted the film to speak to “a child of the 50s, 70s or 80s” to be able to see themselves in the characters, a decision that bleeds down into the costumes, the set decoration and even the lack of noticeable cultural references.
There is no doubt that Petite Maman is one of Sciamma’s best, if not her masterpiece, as it probes grief, childhood and the experience of childhood like no one else can.
Petite Maman premiered at the virtual edition of Berlinale Film Festival 2021
by Rose Dymock