There’s a scene towards the end of Céline Sciamma’s dreamy new feature, Petite maman, in which two eight-year-old girls carry an inflatable canoe to a river, and paddle it vigorously around and under a pyramid-like structure, only to emerge on the other side. It’s hard to express succinctly what makes this brief sequence so breathtaking. Everything about it—the canoe’s canary-yellow Pro Explorer logo, the girls' bright galoshes, the angelic choral music, the transition from murkiness to the vast sweep of the autumnal landscape—is exquisite. In the subsequent medium shot, the girls’ faces have an astute, determined expression, as if they’ve just conquered the earth—or maybe something even more precious, such as a sense of their own bravery, and power. The feeling of release is immense, all the more so since much of this intimate tale takes place in contained domestic spaces, with only brief forays outdoors.
In the film, a young girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), and her parents travel to the old family house in the country after the death of Nelly’s grandmother. The visit stirs some sadness in Nelly’s mom (Nina Meurisse), some of it related to the surgery that she underwent when she was eight, and some, such as the question of whether she had Nelly too young, or regrets motherhood, being more ambiguous. When Nelly ventures out into the woods, she meets another girl, Marion (Gabriella Sanz). As they get close, Nelly comes to realize—or imagine—that Marion is an incarnation of her own mom as a little girl. Nelly is then able to find the words of encouragement that she feels her mom might have lacked.
Magic, dream, time travel (the girls keep referring to Nelly’s things, as opposed to Marion’s, as being “from the future”)—whatever it might be, Sciamma seems to be interested in themes that are more elusive than her prior ardent explorations of burgeoning self-identity and sexuality. What first seems like a straightforward story about mourning a deceased loved one soon turns out to be more about reconciling with one’s past: Recovering the promise of love, pure, without the burden of regret. From Nelly’s viewpoint, life is too fluid to be judged. The more time she spends with her mom (Marion), the more she proves true the adage that the greatest thing to fear is fear itself.
Sciamma collaborates again with the cinematographer Claire Mathon. They convey great tenderness, while softening some of the crisper, contrasty effects of Sciamma’s last film, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). This time, Mathon’s management of primary colors—the constant pairing of blue and red (for example, in the girls’ jackets), brings to mind Krzysztof Kieślowski's colors trilogy. Such homage is matched by subtler accents that catch the eye (pale-salmon hues, in the scenes in which Nelly finds herself alone, in a state of wakefulness, or rich ochre-yellow, in the dappled-glass of the house’s bathroom). Perhaps, in the end, we’re not so far from Three Colours: Blue, which Sciamma at times mentions as a foundational cinephile experience. While Kieślowski's film centers on an adult protagonist (played by Juliette Binoche), and forefronts grief more significantly than Sciamma does in Petite maman, both movies explore the ways in which self-awareness is the first step to a more profound communion with others, as well as the extraordinary healing powers of love. The takeaway message—if there is a single message, in this quietly nebulous film—seems to be that for mature love to spring someday, self-acceptance must blossom first.