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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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‘Barbarian’ and its missing depths

Editor’s note: This review includes mentions of sexual assault.

“Barbarian” is a genre-twisting horror film preying on the fears of dark basements, “nice guy” strangers and rust-belt neighborhoods. What seems like a simple, entertaining premise quickly transforms into a lurking exploration of a horror found in real life. Unfortunately, its thematic mystery falls apart under its own hypocrisy.

I first need to give credit to writer-director Zach Cregger for the adrenaline rush that is his first horror feature. The constant character reveals and genre-switching works every time in escalating the real tension of the story. The visuals are the impressive highlight, emphasizing how clever each character is — or the lack thereof — in silently creative ways. Some choices the characters make pull genuine laughs out of the audience, while others are jaw-dropping in shock value. This emphasis on surprise is the film’s strongest feature. It does not last the entire runtime, but it keeps you guessing on the edge of your seat.

The story branches itself into three characters that play off different genres to clash against the scares. What starts as a stranger-danger thriller suddenly cuts to a horror-comedy with delicious parallels, before once again cutting to a period horror with 80s-era serial killer stereotypes. Yes, the stereotypes are rampant throughout, but they are oftentimes used to double down on each genre in intriguing ways. Sadly, this switching of genre-play only happens in the first half of the film and disappears before reaching its full potential. Once the story merges into one lane, it leaves a collection of questions to be discarded and the remaining conflict to fizzle out in the end.

Now to where this film truly fails: what the characters stand for. One is a blank victim that exists only to be the “final girl” and the other is a predator that never realizes that his excuses are fantasies. The former is supposed to be the central character, but the camera and theme only seem to care about the latter. This is because “Barbarian” secretly revolves around men in denial for being the monsters we read about in accusations. It’s an intriguing premise that is clouded in execution. The worst part is that this underlying reality of sexual assault gets painted over when the predatory man serves as the comedic relief while the female victim gets no characterization at all.

The hardest scenes to watch are intentional. Much of the male character’s past is hard to watch in his self-excusing negligence and false promises, while his actions show his true nature. The female character, on the other hand, doesn’t have a past. She has no inner conflict, flaw or even a purpose to be involved. She’s just stuck there. The comparisons to Alex Garland’s “Men” (criticized for a male writer’s use of a blank female character for a two-dimensional-anti-male, feminist horror film) are so laughable that it sinks this film into ruin.

“Barbarian” is a fun watch in the beginning that accidentally drops all promises by the halfway point. What is left is its broken theme that wants to speak truths too little too late in the runtime with no explanation as to why. It is too busy prioritizing the schock value of genre clash and horror set pieces to effectively present its actual purpose. There’s not enough time with the isolated characters to flesh out their struggles, and the actual, sub-textual horror behind the scares is left off screen. The film’s cracks in the foundation are invisible yet deep, causing the whole story to crumble under the quickest scrutiny. In the end, the risk of tackling guilty men’s response to sexual assault was too catastrophic in the name drops alone; it needed time to grow and be part of the film’s message, but it had no energy or depth to explore correctly.

‘Barbarian’

Director: Zach Cregger

Starring: Georgina Campbell, Justin Long, Bill Skarsgard

Shamrocks: 2 out of 5

Contact JP Spoonmore at jpspoonmo@nd.edu