Revue ‘Petite Maman’: In the woods

By on April 21, 2022 0

Céline Sciamma’s luminous “Petite Maman” is a once upon a time tale with a twist. Set in present-day France, in an isolated hamlet made for solitude and the imagination, it’s a story of family ties, childhood daydreams and unanswered questions. It’s also about finding someone who, like the last piece of a puzzle – the piece you knew existed but just needed to find – completes the picture. In other words, it’s a love story.

Shortly after it opens, 8-year-old Nelly – the extraordinary and self-confident Josephine Sanz – and her parents travel to pack up her grandmother’s house. Nelly’s mother grew up there, and like all childhood homes, this one has become a haunted house, though its rooms are steeped in sadness rather than fear. It’s a sort of domestic time capsule, a modest, spartan, poignant, abandoned place with faded wallpaper. Nelly considers all this with sober curiosity. And, as she moves through it, we notice the white sheets draped over the furniture and the medical grab bar above Grandma’s bed, a mournful reminder of past hardships.

With delicacy, a minimum of dialogue and lucid and harmoniously balanced images, Sciamma (“Portrait of a lady on fire”) invites you into a world that is alternately banal and enigmatic. Part of the mystery is that it’s unclear what kind of story it is and where – with its charming childishness and restrained melancholy – it might be heading. Sciamma doesn’t raise her hand. Instead, she asks you to watch and listen, and get closer to Nelly. By withholding information, Sciamma also encourages you to look at this place and this story with the open eyes of a child, which means putting aside your expectations of how movies work.

Like many fairy tales, this one really begins in the woods. As Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) begin to pack up the house, Nelly explores the surrounding area, bare trees and quiet. As a child, her mother built what she calls a cabin in the forest and now Nelly would like to do the same. So she wanders through the pretty forest, scrapes her carpet of brightly colored leaves, and uses an acorn to fashion a whistle. When she blows on it, the wind rises gently, as if answering her call. Later that night, nestled in her mother’s childhood bed, Nelly and her mother whisper as shadows gather on the walls.