Monday 22 November 2021

Nelly and Marion go boating: "Petite Maman"

By Céline Sciamma's minimalist standards, 2019's Portrait of a Lady on Fire was an epic: even its six-word title appeared extravagantly prolix when set against the director's previous Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. Conceived in early 2020 and filmed in the autumn ahead of its premiere at the Berlin festival this past March, Petite Maman is Sciamma's quick-turnaround lockdown movie, and as such has inevitably had to be reined in to some degree: one location, barely enough actors to fill a bubble, 72-minute running time. What elevates it above 99% of the lockdown movies we've seen so far is its expansive, emotive set-up. This is a film about loss, which would be relevant at any time, but feels especially relevant in the here and now; it's also a film about the absence that's been felt more than ever in the era of social distancing. On some basic level, it appears to have been influenced by those fort/da or peekaboo games parents play with very young children: Sciamma has taken these and fleshed them out into affecting, real-world, life-and-death drama. Her heroine Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a serious-seeming yet inquisitive eight-year-old dragged along by her mum and dad while they clear out her late maternal grandmother's house in the country. Playing in the woods one day - shortly after mum has fled the area, finding her task all too much - she makes a new friend, Marion, who seems instantly familiar - not least as she's played by Gabrielle Sanz, the juvenile lead's twin sister. Now we're really down the rabbit hole: after the initial introduction, Marion invites Nelly back to her house, only this proves to be the same house Nelly has been staying in, complete with its own unhappy matriarch. The building blocks, then, are these: familial trauma, the woods, and a (possibly Covid-imposed) doubling-up of actors and properties. Petite Maman is sundappled and genial rather than nocturnal and nightmarish - it's about as wholesome as any U certificate could be - but there are spots where it hints at what might happen if David Lynch ever made a movie for and about kids.

As Tomboy and her script for 2016's moving claymation My Life as a Courgette first indicated, Sciamma is a filmmaker who remains in exceptionally close correspondence with her inner child: she'd surely have made a fine behavioural psychologist had she not been tempted behind the camera. Some substantial part of the new film is simply a study of the personalities of these two girls, one a shade more readily goofy than the other, as they set about gathering acorns and making pancakes: two almost perfectly blank slates, approaching the pivotal stage where they start imprinting. In as much as we can be certain their friendship is a reality rather than a child's invention, it's a friendship from which both parties will take away an early understanding of the fragility of things - and the fragility of people in particular. The shelter the pair construct together in the woods from twigs is but a Brigadoon for pre-teens, and the respite it provides from the mournful atmosphere back at their home(s), though nourishing, will only last an afternoon or two. Nelly and Marion are at that age when children begin to lose their first pets - and thus begin to know something of what it is to lose a loved one. Sciamma has made a movie about that evolutionary progression, but she's made it with actual people in the place of Fido and Flopsy. 

And, as ever, she never appears to force the issue. Every one of Petite Maman's 72 minutes is presented with Sciamma's trademark, semi-miraculous matter-of-factness: this is a game her characters play, and which we, too, are invited to play along with. The rules require some deducing, as they would were you invited to play along with actual eight-year-olds, and Sciamma can be mischievous herself, her craftily precise matchcuts occasionally scrambling our sense of which reality we're feeling out. Mostly, she plays fair (Nelly's the blue and Marion's the red in costumes designed by the director), and she steers the game in interesting, fruitful directions, as when one girl offers to play the other's mother. It's a film that feels bigger than it is, because a large part of it is hidden from view; Sciamma hands us a plastic spade and asks us to dig beneath the surface activity she's filmed. (It may be the only lockdown movie you'll see with subtext - where the thinking went beyond the merely logistical.) What are these girls playing at? What's on their director's mind? There is more to puzzle over in this mysterious little fable than there is in anything else presently on release, right though to the clues tucked away in the bottom left-hand side of the closing credits, a final scavenger hunt of lyrics to a song written by Céline Sciamma herself. One further question prompted by Petite Maman: is there anything this woman can't do?

Petite Maman is now playing in selected cinemas.

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