Review: Wistful and tender meditation in Petite Maman, on the ties that connect us in family, memory, love and loss, French film, directed by Céline Sciamma

The woods figure in fairy tales/fables from around the world – for good and bad. It is a place adventure, discovery, refuge, communing with nature, where one can let go and also get lost. What does one encounter in the woods and when one emerges, how does one deal with what has been encountered- tangible and intangible? Can we go back – to the past- and more importantly- can we return- with the knowledge that we have acquired?  How does one calibrate memory? In Céline Sciamma’s wistful and tender, Petite Maman, 8-year old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) ventures into the woods, after the death of her beloved maternal grandmother. Wracked by grief, Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) has temporarily left Nelly and her dad to pack up and sort through her grandma’s house. In the woods, Nelly encounters another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who it transpires is her the younger self of her mother.  Petite Maman is screening online at the European Film Festival South Africa- hybrid festival – cinemas and online- October 13 to 23, 2022.  Info here: Booking:

Back to the past- seguing back into the future: Fantasy time travel is not a genre that I am fond of but Petite Maman surprised me. It is a beautifully conceptualised film, with a gently considered script, captivating performances and stunning cinematography – a palette of burnished autumn leaves which is emblematic for me of seasons changing and shifting.  

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz are twins in real life and they are remarkable as they portray mirror images of self – mother and daughter – at the same age. It is an intriguing proposition and could have been tricky to evoke in a film with the temptation to let the cuteness of kids take over but in the hands of director/writer, Céline Sciamma, the film transcends sentimentality as it tussles with a young girl trying to come to grips with her mother’s pain and unhappiness- and memories that have been perhaps supressed.

It is all very well to find out about a parent’s life story. Getting to the nub of the emotional, the intangible narrative is another story.  In Petite Maman, we journey into the woods and experience the visceral discovery of pain and loss. Plot spoiller: Through the immersion in the woods and playing with the younger self of her mother, Nelly is liberated as she is able to go forward and with her mother – and face what may come next. Saying goodbye to a dying person is tough. Can one ever say goodbye adequately? But saying hello to the living and finding ways of connecting with those we love is also not easy. The playfulness of Petite Maman is captivating and inspirational. Perhaps we need to let go of reality and venture into the woods. I loved Petite Maman. It made me sad and it made me smile. Parental/offspring relationships are complex as we mirror each other and deal with our ‘selves’.

✳ Featured image supplied by European Film Festival (SA).