The time following the loss of a loved one is a delicate period. Céline Sciamma’s new film understands this. In it, we follow eight year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as her and her immediate family spend a few days in the house of her recently departed grandmother. The aim is to clear up the house and move on, already a clear metaphor for sifting through the past while pushing towards the future, a key theme of the film.
This delicate time is perceptively captured through every element. A lot of it is due to the film’s stillness, evoking a sombre, reflective mood. However, it is also in the autumnal colours, or in the fading beauty of vintage houses. We spend a good amount of time outside, a clear liminal space between past and present, a place of reflection. Here, the floor is coated with orange leaves, fallen to the floor: a beautiful sight but a reminder of death (establishing the tone so well). The leaves on the trees themselves are a pale green, the beginnings of life (with an ambiguity around if this life is fading or establishing). This feeds back into the film-long reflection about the balance between death and life, and of the need to look both backwards and forwards when considering loss (or how we are forced to do so). The glowing leaves shining out in contrast to the colourful decay below them is always paired with our central figure. Nelly is always just there, existing in almost every frame. When in the forest, she is yet another reminder of life, in all its fragility, but also of the future. Her positioning among the trees echoes her positioning in the narrative: a growing, delicate thing surrounded by a mature and complex sadness (but also very much a part of this).
This is a lot to take in, and the film gives you room to do so. As mentioned, this is a work of great stillness. Claire Mathon (who also shot this year’s Spencer) shoots the film and the result is real beauty. It is a lingering camera, one that rests in hallways and that peers in from a distance. We are usually at a child’s height, evoking the subjective lens and the experiential (a key detail that help what becomes a lightly magic realist narrative to work). Each composition is deceptively simple. The framing, however, is just beautiful. Striking images make up the film, but the restrained camerawork means imagery is never intrusive. This is a film of evocation, a film that has space to breathe. Though it is a mere 72 minutes, Sciamma’s direction and Mathon’s camera create an engrossing stillness with so much room for the viewer.
This approach is necessary, also due to the dialogue. This is not a film of mysteries or of revelations. There is a core plot event a third of the way through that sets up what the film actually is, but knowing this would not spoil anything. Petite Maman plays its cards on the table and facing up, never keeping things back from the audience unless they are kept from the character whose perspective we are tied to. This means that a lot of the dialogue is plain or upfront: there is an emotional candidness to the film, one that is really rather special. Sciamma captures the frankness of children, and uses this as a juxtaposition for the reserved world of adulthood. Nelly is a child that wants to understand, one that feels deeply and that needs companionship. This film captures her yearning perfectly, with an understanding of childhood (and a resonant empathy) that is reminiscent of the early work of Abbas Kiorastami.
In description, the film is strangely high-concept (though, I won’t get into these elements here). In execution, it is pure simplicity. What could be contrived, or forced, or far too arch, becomes completely natural. Everything is here as a symbol or a point for emotional resonance, but it is also a straightforward and stripped back narrative that plays like one. At the core is the idea that with death comes both distance and intimacy, and how these aspects echo out into wider relationships. We see how characters deal with loss differently and how they speak or don’t speak. The use of silence is so important, as knowing glances and perfectly directed (and acted) expressions and wider body language becomes the film’s strongest suit. Sciamma captures childhood. She captures the importance of relationships based around proximity and understanding. She also captures the want for the impossible.
There are people in our life that we will never understand, this is enforced even further by generational divides. Some conversations can never happen, some pasts will forever stay locked off from us. But what if we could holiday in the past? What if the indelible distances could be wiped away? Our parents, our grandparents, our guardians (and beyond) were like us once. Now they may be so removed but everybody has been a child, has thought like a child and lived like a child. To be so is to be different. But, importantly, to be so is not to be lesser. Pettite Maman has so much emotional understanding, realising that the supposed maturity of adulthood is a different state rather than a progression. This film loves the children at the heart of it, and this leads to them giving exceptional performances. It is a plea for connection, for honesty and for openness as well as a window back into the past. It has so much to say outside of its upfront, literal text but never feels like an essay or a polemic. It is another masterful film from one of our leading filmmakers; a short holiday into the lives of others that will stay with you for a long time.