Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, which premiered at Berlinale, masterfully explores themes of grief and loss
One could argue that the elements in Céline Sciamma's new film — pain, grief and loss — are very much present in her previous four feature films.
That quote from WandaVision went through the internet hype cycle, even without context. Tears were shed, the larger meaning was dissected over, transformed into a meme, "what is the big deal" question was posed and finally rendered inconsequential at best and trivial at worst. Céline Sciamma shocked one and all when she revealed that she’s quite enraptured by the Marvel TV series. She was quick to correct that she's not into MCU or The Avengers and that probably meant all the backstories and easter eggs went above her head, but she liked how the series dealt with grief and loss. Her new film Petite Maman - first after the Portrait of a Lady on Fire juggernaut - premiered at the 71st Berlinale that concluded its virtual industry event recently. The new film is neither a formal departure nor a thematic change for Sciamma, one could argue that the elements in this film - pain, grief and loss - are very much present in her previous four feature films and Petite Maman, in its crisp – at times too crisp - runtime of 72 minutes guides the process of grieving through portals cinema seldom takes it through.
Petite Maman begins with Sciamma's characteristic symmetry. The title appears in huge fonts over the portrait of a woman, framed in the centre of an open window, turned towards the outside world, plain but with a hint of remorse in her almost lifeless posture. She is eight-year-old Nelly's (Josephine Sanz) mother (Nina Meurisse) and they are in a senior care facility. Nelly’s grandmother has passed, and the mother-daughter pair are cleaning up and vacating her room. They load up some stuff in the car and drive away to the mother's childhood home, another abode that’s waiting for a dissolution. Or is it excavation? A beautiful two-minute sequence follows as Nelly tears open some snacks, consumes them and feeds her to her mother who is driving. We see only Nelly's hands from the back seat and after a couple of mouthfuls, she passes a drink and makes sure her mother catches the end of the straw. Soon the penny drops, and we learn from Nelly's innocent queries that her mother's presence barely registers for her and they meet only during bedtime. She asks a lot of questions and they discuss each other's childhood scares. Nelly is promised that she can go look at her mother's childhood treehouse the next day. Nelly wakes up in the morning to find her mother missing and only her father for company. She had wanted to leave before Nelly was up. She wanted an escape.
Nelly's father gives her something to play with in the woods and Nelly's retort is pointed, even if spoken with casual aloofness of someone who has made peace with her loneliness, "A game you play alone? Perfect!". What follows is a distillation of grief through conversation and a tender, wholesome friendship. As she looks around for her mother's treehouse, she finds a girl, about her age, dragging a thin branch with all her petite little might. The girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), calls out for help and along with Nelly, collects the autumnal residues for constructing a treehouse. Rain lashes the landscape and the two girls run towards Marion's home and they both interact, in complete silence, as if they've known each other for time beyond their collective years in the planet. The scene is reminiscent of the locker room scenes in Sciamma's debut feature Water Lilies, where Marie first meets Floriane. Marion passes Nelly the towel; they change their drenched jackets for Marion's dry ones and Nelly finds herself stupefied by how close she feels to her new friend in a familiar setting.
Through Nelly and Marion's short but fruitful friendship, Sciamma expects us to interrogate the individual missing from this universe, and Nelly's universe, the one whose absence confounds her - her mother. The film has been called Sciamma's "minor work", partly due to its one-line plot and partly making the mistake of comparing it to the scale of something like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Petite Maman balances multiple things - the magic realism of Nelly-Marion friendship, how Marion leads Nelly into her home that is the reflection of her grandmother's, how this relationship helps Nelly get close to her mother, a mother she hardly knew, and deal with the grief of losing her a loved one. Nelly reconciles with her present and her mother understands her past and future. The film bends the temporal realities of two children and an adult, thereby making children behave like adults and adults behave like children. Nelly asks her father what he is afraid of. Initially, he doesn't have an answer or rather isn't ready to give her the answer. He says his father scared him the most and Nelly wonders aloud how she doesn't know anything about their parents' childhood, and they tell her only the little things. After Marion, she doesn’t feel so little anymore.
This "minor work" is almost as complex as Sciamma's Girlhood trilogy (Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood), which dealt with gender fluidity and young women coming of age. Here too, it is Nelly who must start behaving like an adult too soon. Sciamma puts loaded words into mouths of these children and yet there isn't a note out of place due to the way she plays with time, almost setting up a dreamland of memories, a theme park to deal with loss where two eight-year-olds make up for time that’ll be lost in the future, the time that metamorphosed as remorse within Nelly’s mother. Yes, this is probably love persevering, but it is also its beginning and if we consider the film as a linear narrative, maybe a different life awaits Nelly at the end of Petite Maman, which again like Water Lilies, contains an extravagant musical interlude featuring two women content at having found each other.
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