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Petite Maman ★★★★

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Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne and Margot Abascal

Released: Berlinale 2021

Céline Sciamma is a name that we all know and love. Her magnum opus Portrait of a Lady on Fire blew up like there was no tomorrow. The buzz behind brand Sciamma continues its momentum with her latest film Petit Maman. Her 5th feature-length film is in competition at Berlinale 71, and the big question is, has she done it again?

The film follows eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her beloved grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods where her mum, Marion (Nina Meurisse), used to play and where she built the treehouse Nelly has heard so much about. One day her mother suddenly leaves. That is when Nelly meets a girl of her own age called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods, building a treehouse.

As the birds’ chirp in the background and Nelly farewells her grandmother’s friends, Sciamma sets a saddening tone. This autumnally soaked film explores grief from the perspective of a child. As the camera moves around expressively, Sciamma takes time for us to absorb these sombre moments. The loss of a grandparent had a profound effect on me growing up. My salvation was my mother. Even in her darkest hour, she was always there to comfort me. I saw a lot of myself within Nelly; my grandmother meant the world to me.

As Nelly explores her house, this connection they had never left. Grabbing her cane means she can still smell her hand, and playing with a piece of string etches her closer to the one she misses. These quiet, reflective moments Sciamma brings to life feel too real at times. The feelings I had then came back instantly, and that is the power of her cinema.

Her mothers cherished memories of where she grew up fascinate Nelly. Within the solace of her loss, she grows closer to her. As she explores the woods that her mother was so fond of, it becomes a sense of escapism for Nelly. At this moment, the present meets the past. Nelly forms a strong bond with her new friend Marion and their childlike wonder temporarily heal all wounds. As their project of building a treehouse continues, Nelly opens up more about her grief. Marion is there for her, and this bond grows stronger. The young Marion is a reflection of Nelly’s mother, and Sciamma captures this reconnection elegantly.

Claire Mathon’s soft framing gazes into the soul of Nelly as she attempts to understand the situation. The honesty of a child makes them so pure, and especially when the harsh truths of life are difficult to bear. For a film that clocks in at 72 minutes, you almost feel as you have known her forever. These deep connections that Sciamma conjure with all her character are what make her films so beautiful.

Petite Maman is beautifully helmed by Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz. They are sisters in real life, and their casting is a Godsend for this film. What unfolds in front of our eyes is a young girl growing up but maintaining that childlike wonder. Her wild imagination is brought to life by Marion as they create a stronger bond because of their loss. They allow each other to enjoy the simple things, but they are also there for each other emotionally. Céline Sciamma teaches us to cherish every moment with our loved ones.

Petite Maman strikes a bittersweet chord that only Céline Sciamma can conjure. Absolutely breathtaking cinema.

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Lover of all things indie and foreign language. Can be found rambling on YouTube at times!

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