Does French film-maker Céline Sciamma ever put a foot wrong? As a writer-director, her “accidental trilogy of youth” climaxed in the contemporary urban classic Girlhood (2014), after which she conquered the world of the 18th century in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – both near-perfect masterpieces. Now with Petite Maman she proves herself a maestro of the modern fable, conjuring a U-certificate treat that goes straight into my list of the greatest films ever made for children of all ages. “What would Miyazaki do?” was apparently Sciamma’s creative mantra, and you can feel the timeless energy of Studio Ghibli’s finest features haunting her creative decisions. Whether you are six or 60, this astonishingly insightful and heartbreakingly hopeful cinematic poem will pierce your heart, broaden your mind and gladden your soul, even as you wipe away tears.
When her beloved grandmother dies, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) worries that she didn’t say goodbye properly, not realising that the end was so near. At the ever-so-slightly mysterious house by the woods where Grandma lived, the task begins of clearing away the past. While her mum (Nina Meurisse) and dad (Stéphane Varupenne) pack up memories and face their own personal demons (“I get the feeling everyone is asking themselves questions”), Nelly ventures out among the autumn trees, whistling down the wind where her mother once roamed as a child.
Here, she happens upon a young girl, Marion, played by Josephine’s real-life twin, Gabrielle Sanz. Marion shares Nelly’s mother’s name, and lives in a house that strangely mirrors that of her grandmother. Indeed, Marion’s life chimes so closely with tales Nelly has been told of her mother’s childhood that she reaches a bold conclusion, telling her new friend: “I come from the path behind you…”
Like the sublime Sciamma-scripted stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette (2016), Petite Maman is short and sweet, yet fearlessly profound. A mix of fairytale, ghost story and rites-of-passage journey, this is at heart a cinematic parable about healing intergenerational wounds, about breaching the barriers that inevitably grow between parents and children. It’s also a brilliantly cheeky “what if?” story, a lower-key riff on the crash-bang time-travelling pyrotechnics of Back to the Future.
What’s astonishing is the way Sciamma uses her central conceit to allow characters to speak to each other across great divides – for children to see the dreams their parents once nurtured and to be reassured that “you didn’t invent my sadness”. Oh, to be able to have those conversations, in such wonderfully ordinary surroundings! What fantastical flight of fantasy could be more thrilling, more enriching, more healing? Who needs a DeLorean or a flux capacitor when you have this?
Shot in intimately natural hues by cinematographer Claire Mathon, whose recent credits include the shimmering current release Spencer, Petite Maman has a tactile, earthy quality that at times reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ underrated oddity The Silence of Lorna, another film that slips effortlessly between potentially Grimm realities. As with her early features Water Lilies and Tomboy, Sciamma has a keen eye for those moments where childhood and adulthood blur, with Nelly (who seems from the outset to be maternally protective of her mother) play-acting grown-up life with Marion while her mum is infantilised by returning to her childhood room, surrounded by her old books and shadowy nightmares of panthers at the end of the bed.
There’s also the sheer joy of a scene in which Nelly and Marion make pancakes, which combines the youthful glee of The Florida Project with the bittersweet fantasy of the “perfect day” coda from Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence. I honestly can’t remember the last time I smiled so widely in a cinema, albeit from behind the protective covering of a mask.
As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma once again makes sparse but pointed use of music, with an 1980s-tinged song co-written with regular collaborator Para One (AKA Jean-Baptiste de Laubier) accompanying a blissful interlude of surreal childhood adventure, perfectly encapsulating the dreams, aspirations and quietly rebellious spirit of this utterly spellbinding little gem.