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Petite Maman review – enchanting ode to memory and imagination

The latest from Portrait of a Lady on Fire filmmaker Céline Sciamma is a warm, Miyazaki-like fairytale with a touch of the supernatural

After the stratospheric success of her period romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, expectations have been high for French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature. With Petite Maman, however, she returns to a world more akin to her second film, Tomboy, exploring the restorative and solace-like power of nature with a newfound warmth not yet glimpsed in her back catalogue.

Sciamma needs only 72 minutes to tell us this sweet tale about the healing powers of imagination in times of sadness, injecting a mythical twist into her trademark naturalism. Our protagonist is Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a kind eight-year-old whose grandmother has just passed away. She and her parents have temporarily moved into her grandmother’s house – which backs onto picturesque woodlands – in order to sort her belongings.

It's this liminal space that soon becomes a vehicle to explore intergenerational memories, which both Nelly and her mother (Nina Meurisse) discover are a salve to their grief. Deep within the woods, Nelly discovers a den that her mother built as a child – but there’s another girl there. A girl who not only looks identical to her, but bears the same name as her mother: Marion.

Though in cinema the discovery of a doppelgänger usually makes for an uncanny experience, the presence of Marion – played by Josephine Sanz’s twin, Gabrielle – isn’t scary for Nelly. The pair soon develop a tender friendship, one in which Nelly is able to not only imagine what her own mother’s childhood was like, but how she must now be feeling after losing her own mother. The film masterfully shows how children realise and externalise empathy through the magic of imagination.

Petite Maman is a gorgeous film to experience. Sciamma's regular collaborator, cinematographer Claire Mathon, captures the autumnal scenery in all its beauty: gnarled trunks, golden leaves, gentle fronds of weeping willow. This textured warmth renders the edges of Nelly’s world, while the children’s wardrobe, made up of mustard cords, chunky knits, puffer jackets, and dungarees, was put together by Sciamma herself.

It’s these textures that inform Nelly and Marion’s memories, too. Sciamma lovingly captures all those fragments of a relationship that never seemed important at first – the deep burgundy shade of a jumper, the way it feels against your cheeks as you curl up on a sagging sofa. Although, as one character posits, these are only “petite histoires,” Sciamma bestows them with loving importance, playing on every sense as a means of tracing those ephemeral moments of love.

Whereas Sciamma’s previous features have been tinged with pathos – forbidden love, gender dysmorphia, abusive families – Petite Maman basks in tender charm. It’s felt in the way Nelly munches on a crisp with a childish nibble, or dresses up as a hardboiled detective in an acting role-play, or flips a crêpe with wildly mis-aimed gusto.

Given its My Neighbour Totoro-like reverie of sweet, simple messages, Petite Maman surely has a future on countless lists of the greatest comfort movies. But the film's warmth is never saccharine, nor does it take away from the overall themes of love and loss. Soft, charming, and generous, Sciamma has once again proven her mastery in telling stories about girlhood. This is the cinematic equivalent of a bowl of hot and nourishing soup, served on a cold day.

Petite Maman was screened as part of the Berlin International Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 19 November.

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