“Petite Maman” may run a mere 72 minutes, but its artistry is immense. For her first film since the luminous period romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — which only ran two hours but felt both visually and emotionally epic — the inimitable French filmmaker Céline Sciamma crafted something a little more, well, petite. A slightly magical fable about mothers and children, the themes in “Petite Maman” will be familiar to longtime admirers of Sciamma’s work, which began with the César Award-nominated “Water Lilies” (2007) and includes the best queer childhood film ever made, “Tomboy” (2011).
The film’s concept, which imagines if a young girl could befriend her mother when she was her age, is the first time Sciamma has dabbled in anything verging on magical realism. Her work is always marked by a balance of simplicity and complexity; emotionally ripe scenarios are elegantly distilled and planted firmly in one or two characters’ perspectives. “Petite Maman” may be a small film, but it packs a lot into quiet moments of wonder. It’s a film that makes you listen, and the reverberations echo long after you leave the theater.
“I think the fact that even that it’s small film is really immodest in a way. Because, it really wants a strong impact,” Sciamma told IndieWire during a recent interview from Paris, where she sat smoking a cigarette. “Because it’s cinema like close-up magic. It’s full of the confidence that I was given by cinephiles and feminists and teenagers all over the world after ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ That I couldn’t ignore. That yes, as I believed because I lived it, cinema can have an impact. And so given that strength, I decided that I could work on another impact with another device.”
The idea for “Petite Maman” was percolating while she was writing “Portrait,” and she would return to the script during moments of frustration with the more challenging project. Though they have very little in common, the two films are even more in conversation knowing they were born out of the same time. One can almost view “Petite Maman” as a novella bookend to the tome that is “Portrait” — the perfect digestif to wash down the feast.
“The two ideas were building up at the same time in my mind,” she said. “It was at a time where I was giving up on [‘Portrait’] because it was a difficult film to figure out. And that very powerful yet peaceful idea of a little girl hanging out with a mom as a kid popped up and … it felt warm. It felt like it was unrolling easily in my head. So I said, ‘OK, this is where I will land, whatever happens.’ That idea really felt suiting. It never left my mind.”
“Petite Maman” features two very engaging performances from the sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who play eight-year-olds Nelly and Marion, respectively. After arriving to help pack up the house after the death of her grandmother, Nelly discovers a path through the woods that leads her into this emotional time warp. At the end of each day, she is able to return to the present, but she always seeks out Marion again. As the two children play, Nelly learns more about her grandmother and her mother, including her health issues and her childhood dreams of being an actress.
Of Sciamma’s past work, “Petite Maman” has the most in common with “Tomboy,” which saw a young character trying out a boy’s name and identity for the summer. Sciamma clearly has a way with child actors, which comes from a hands-off approach that respects them as collaborators. She prefers to rehearse as little as possible for all her films, but especially when working with kids.
“I prefer not to rehearse in general … but it is implied that with kids you would need that, that you would feel safer. And I find it even more a paradox with kids. Trusting your kid to play and perform feels right,” she said. “We build the language of the film together. We share the same groove, we share the same ideas. I fully respect the process of each film, creating its language. Especially if you’re creating a language of cinema around childhood, you should collaborate fully with kids, which means make the ideas with them.”
From a suburban high school to an isolated 18th-century island, Sciamma’s films focus on young women or queer kids as they navigate a universal emotional experience. No matter the scope or scale, she always zooms in on the most tender and vivid moments, sharp flashes that reflect the viewer back to themselves, while still creating totally immersive cinematic worlds.
“The thing with kid characters is that they’re intensely gazing at the world. We call that curiosity. I call that survival, it’s a survival mode,” she said. “You have to understand where you are, what threatens you, how you have to adapt. And that’s very intense gazing at the world. And that’s a great tension for cinema. That’s also why I love to write kid characters. Because all my film relies on somebody intensely gazing at a situation and wanting to be in the frame.”
NEON will release “Petite Maman” in theaters on Friday, April 22.