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‘Petite Maman’: Like mother, like daughter

They say that great things come in small packages. In just 73 minutes, French film “Petite Maman” (translated “Little Mom”), directed by Céline Sciamma, tells a touching story of motherhood and memory.

The film follows eight-year-old Nelly, right after her maternal grandmother passes away. Nelly and her parents go to the grandmother’s old house in the countryside to move her things, and this is where they discover Nelly’s mother Marion’s old school books and toys. The film envelopes you in the clean coziness characteristic of a grandmother’s house, replete with butter cookie tins filled with sewing paraphernalia and quaint, floral wallpaper.

As they’re in the process of packing up the house, Marion goes back to the city for a few days, leaving Nelly with her father. Though it’s unclear why Marion is going away, Nelly feels nervous and sad in her mother’s absence and wonders if she is the reason why Marion is often unhappy.

While her mother is gone, Nelly begins to play in the woods alone near the house. Her imagination is captured by stories that her mother told her about the huts she used to build out of tree branches when she was growing up. The film’s cinematography is gorgeous, with the fall colors in the picturesque forest and the whimsical decor of the grandmother’s house. As she plays in the woods, Nelly encounters another little girl who looks remarkably similar to her, and they become instant playmates in the way that only eight year olds can.

Over the course of the film, Sciamma’s brilliant magical realism reveals itself. Nelly’s new playmate is Marion — except not her thirty-one year old self stressed by the pressures of motherhood and modern life. This is Marion as she would have been at eight-years-old. Nelly and little Marion make hot chocolate together, explore the woods and go over to each others’ houses to play elaborate games where they pretend to be countesses and inspectors.

At little Marion’s house, Nelly meets her grandmother as a middle-aged woman and tries not to flinch with shock. Nelly is able to relive memories with her grandmother and say a proper “au revoir” now that she has been given the opportunity. 

Through the film’s delicate time-bending and intentionally simple storytelling, we are able to fill in the gaps ourselves. In an interview, Sciamma said: “I did not put too much detail about the life of the characters in it. It’s not about how they feel … it’s about how we feel. Even if you have a good relationship or bad relationship with your parents, you don’t have to fit in with the film, the film will adapt to you.” For me, the film was a delightful way to remember all the stories my mother has told me about her childhood — playing hide and seek with kids in her neighborhood — but for others, like my friend who was in tears beside me during the screening, the film can be a poignant exploration of loss.

As I was watching Nelly and Marion during the film’s long and often silent takes, I realized that “Petite Maman” really encapsulates the different mother-daughter media I turn to for comfort. It embodies the same idealism of “Gilmore Girls” that in essence is about the tension and joy of mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory being friends in a picture-perfect, small American town. It also echoes the themes of A24’s “Lady Bird” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” that focus on the angst and pain of daughters trying to live up to their mother’s expectations and make them happy. The wise eight year old Marion answers all of Nelly’s anxieties in a tender scene where she simply says, “You didn’t invent my sadness”.

Title: “Petite Maman”

Starring: Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse

Director: Céline Sciamma

If you like: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Boyhood,” “Lady Bird”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

Contact Angela Mathew at amathew3@nd.edu.

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