Petite Maman: In the Forest of Childhood

In her new film, while creating an enchanted world without any fantastic intervention, Céline Sciamma delivers a subtle coming-of-age story about grief.

Echoes of the little steps go along the corridors of a nursing home. Throughout the aligning rooms, 8-year-old Nelly is saying goodbye to senior patients. Yet her face reflects the unbearable grievance caused by a goodbye that didn’t take place.

After the highly-acclaimed Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu, French auteur Céline Sciamma returns with a new feature made in the middle of the pandemic crisis. Presented in Berlinale’s Official Competition, Petite Maman is impregnated with familiar imagery: A world full of timeless losses and unsaid goodbyes.

Death is indeed a unique and personal experience. Yet Sciamma manages to capture the tediousness of formalities and the unbearable feeling of emptiness in these abandoned rooms and beds. The feelings which, one way or another, all of us share in our lives. Despite its short runtime and modest narrative, Petite Maman is profound enough to deliver us those unnamable experiences in which the personal and shared feelings intersect.

Nelly is just a little child who, after losing her grandmother, tries to make sense of her mourning and sorrow while her grandmother’s home must be emptied and reorganized. There she discovers an unknown past that belonged to her mother, Marion. A past in which Marion seems to get absorbed after the death of her own mother. With particular attention to the cinematic spaces, Sciamma carefully shows how the experience of death penetrates not only human beings but also the places and things. Gradually, the orphaned objects in the house start to bind Nelly and Marion to each other and, therefore, make their shared experiences gain a spatial aspect. From the characters’ clothes to the furniture in the house, the timeless atmosphere of the film shapes an enchanted world without any blatant fantastic intervention.

Somehow, the film’s vivid colour palette, laden with browns and oranges, reminds us that this world exists under a child’s look. Around the house, whose wardrobes and drawers are bursting with memories, Nelly starts to explore the forest and dreams of building a wooden house, just like her mother did when she was the same age. One day, unexpectedly, Nelly sees a little girl there, who’s trying to arrange logs in the middle of the forest. Nelly, upon realizing that this girl is, in fact, her mother, enters a fairytale-like world similar to My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro, 1988) and challenges the ordinary course of time.

As its name suggests, Petite Maman does not promise big twists or narrative surprises to the audience. It is clear that Sciamma goes for a modest narrative structure, as she did masterfully in her previous features. Her focus is mainly on the characters, and she makes sure that the storyline does not eclipse each character’s singular complexities. In this world where time has nearly stopped and sealed within a wooden house, Nelly’s hesitant, cowboyish gait, her trembling voice, her looks – in short, each trait that make Nelly herself, Sciamma graves them to the audience’s heart. The film’s particular attention to small details echoes with Nelly’s effort to recapture her mother’s and grandmother’s looks or postures that belongs to the past.

Nelly doesn’t care much about whether her past explorations are authentic or just the fruit of her imagination. The only fact that matters for her – and which is also irrevocably, is that her grandmother is dead. But this unique experience allows her to say one last goodbye and, one way or another, to overcome her grief. Here, Sciamma employs the “What if?” question that many fictional narratives also ask to conceive alternative and imaginary worlds. Scenario-wise, even though this question seems relatively simple and obvious, its reflection in the past assures its superior force. Since “What if?” is nothing but the past reflection of “if only….” Little by little, Petite Maman clear those “if only “s away that got stuck to Nelly’s mind after her grandmother’s death. And despite its profound implication with death, the film manages to create a unique therapeutical effect precisely because Nelly goes beyond those grievance walls that separate her from her grandmother and mother. Confronting Nelly’s inability to touch her mother’s sorrow, it is finally Marion herself that removes its weight from her daughter. “You didn’t invent my unhappiness says Marion, and accompanies Nelly to take her first steps in the present time.

This review was originally published on Altyazi Montly Cinema Magazine’s website.

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