“Petite Maman” Is a Minor Miracle

Never be surprised by the swerves that mark the career of a movie director. In the fall of 1939, for instance, admirers of Michael Curtiz, who had scored a hit with “Angels with Dirty Faces,” the previous year, were treated first to “Dodge City” and then, five months later, to “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” (Both films starred Errol Flynn, who was, if anything, even more uneasy in a ruff and tights than he was in a ten-gallon hat.) One of the finest swervers of the present day is Céline Sciamma, who shifted from Black female gangs, in “Girlhood” (2015), to an eighteenth-century painter and her subject, in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019). Recently, Sciamma was one of the screenwriters of Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District,” which measured the tremors of multiple modern desires. So, what’s next?

The answer is “Petite Maman,” which is rated PG, but only because somebody smokes a cigarette. The tale is largely set in the tranquility of the French countryside. There is no violence, unless you count a ball being hit with a paddle, and most definitely no sex. Adults are on the periphery; the center of the film is occupied exclusively, and unforgettably, by children. The most welcome news of all is that the running time is seventy-two minutes. By my calculations, this means that “Petite Maman” is less than half the length of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021), while being twenty times as good.

We first meet Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), aged eight, in the wake of her grandmother’s passing, in an old people’s home. Ever polite, Nelly goes and says goodbye to some of the other residents, while her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), tidies the room where the grandmother died. Next stop is the secluded house of the deceased, which needs to be cleared, presumably in order to be sold. Marion dwelled there as a child—for how long, we don’t know, but traces of that period are everywhere. There are games and puzzles that she played, books that she read, and a patch of yellowing wallpaper behind the kitchen dresser, which reminds her of the walls that she knew.

Also in evidence is Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne), who is unnamed, and who, like Marion, seems taciturn, benign, and bowed down. For a while, indeed, it occurred to me that he might be Marion’s brother, sharing her grief; we certainly sense that something is amiss in their relationship—or, rather, we are tuned into Nelly’s awareness of that flaw. (At one point, Marion goes away for a couple of days, as though everything has become too much.) Inquisitive and imperturbable, Nelly is our guide through the story, which somehow unfolds on her initiative. The movie could be called “What Nelly Knew.”

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The plot has the ring of a fairy tale. One day, Nelly, who has no siblings, walks into the woods. There, she sees a girl of her own age, who is busy building a den and asks for help. The two of them team up, carrying branches together; a friendship is established in the act of doing. What neither of them sees fit to mention, perhaps because it feels quite natural, is that they are identical. (The other girl is played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister.) On subsequent days, Nelly is invited to her doppelgänger’s house for snacks, drinks, larking around, dressing up, and finally a sleepover. Two details are worth noting. One, the house is apparently the same as the grandmother’s house—or, rather, as it used to be, years ago, with the whole kitchen papered in the pattern that we saw behind the dresser. And, two, the other girl’s name is Marion. Gradually, even for viewers as slow on the uptake as myself, the truth dawns: this Marion is Nelly’s mother, as a child.

The most beautiful aspect of this startling revelation is the way in which it fails to startle the kids. “I’m your daughter,” Nelly says to the young Marion, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if pointing out a smut on her nose. Indeed, the mood throughout the film is one of solemn playfulness. Not once do the girls gasp in surprise, let alone complain or cry, and there are extraordinary scenes in which they put on costumes and stage a short play, entirely for their own amusement, casting themselves in many parts—Marion as a countess, say, and Nelly as a detective. One of them even cradles a doll and claims it as their baby. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Cinema has schooled us in the role-play of the young. The performance of Brigitte Fossey as a five-year-old named Paulette, creating her own private cemetery in René Clément’s “Forbidden Games” (1952), is indelible. But Paulette’s fantasy was forged, under traumatic pressure, by the cruelties of war, whereas the kids in “Petite Maman” seem at peace in their inventiveness, and wholly at ease with the trick of fate that has brought them together. It’s remarkable how unsweet and anti-cute the movie is, given the innocence of their chosen joys; one sequence, in which they make pancakes, is every bit as messy as you would hope, and it’s almost as if the actresses were, for a moment, unaware of the camera’s presence. Does the delicate task of directing kids grow a little easier when they are sisters in real life, and thus used to the mess and the toss?

As for Nelly and her double, so for Sciamma. She, too, is calm and light-footed in her pragmatic approach. “Petite Maman” is a time-travel movie, no question, yet it feels strange to apply that label, because of the restrained manner in which Sciamma strips the genre of its trappings: no wormholes, no Wellsian contraption, no Stargate, not even a simple DeLorean. “You come from the future?,” the young Marion asks. “I come from the path behind you,” Nelly replies. The past is there, just out of sight, around the corner and behind the trees. All we get, by way of a special effect, is a discernible soughing of the wind, as the years sweep by. (Compare another clear-sighted French dream, Alain-Fournier’s 1913 novel “Le Grand Meaulnes,” in which a castle, long sought for, turns out to be much nearer than the seekers had supposed.) It is one thing, however, to confront your former self, or your lost love; it’s quite another to meet the early incarnation of the person who gave you life—and, what is more, to meet her at an age when you were, so to speak, inconceivable.

“Petite Maman” is a minor miracle. It’s a modest fable, possessed of an imaginative reach that far exceeds its dimensions. Sciamma is tapping into a universal fascination that is rarely explored—that is to say, our secret wish, as children, to learn what our parents were like when they were young, and to wonder, not without trepidation, whether they were like us. (Not everyone, I guess, would crave the sort of continuity that Nelly does. Miserable kids, in her place, could well make a determined effort not to resemble their parents, in the hope of pursuing different paths.) The indubitable charm of the movie is all the richer because it is tracked by quiet fears. No wolves are harbored by the woods in which the girls play, yet Marion confesses that, when she was little, she worried that the shadows at the foot of her bed, in the night, would assume the shape of a panther. More striking still, when Nelly asks her father what he was afraid of, as a boy, he whispers into her ear, “I was afraid of my father.” There are chills and sorrows, as well as fun and games, in the riddle of time regained.

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