Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Céline Sciamma on Her Next Film, Petite Maman

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The film, which has just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, tells the story of an eight-year-old girl who has just lost her grandmother and is attempting to navigate the confusing emotional terrain of family grief

“Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to.” One eight-year-old girl says this to another in Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival last week and brings us inside a world of childhood in which the magic of discovery is tinged with solitude and loss. The film is short, at just over 70 minutes, and deceptively simple to begin with. But the hair stands up on the back of our necks as we realise something supernatural – a visit from the spirit world, or a corridor through time – has enveloped the two confidantes.

“It’s a time-travelling film without the time-travelling machine,” said the French director from Paris. The pandemic meant there could be no red carpet fanfare, as the festival went online, beamed into the separate cells of lockdown living rooms – but that made strange sense for an intimate film about portals between spaces of isolation, which had to be shot under Covid-proofed conditions.

Sciamma says she wanted to explore a different idea of time travel than that commonly encountered in hit movies such as 80s sci-fi Back to the Future, and questioned the genre’s tendency toward the aspirational and sensational. “How about if it’s not about getting back to a better future when you return, with rich parents, or being touristic and going to ancient Egypt, but the opportunity of sharing time and space together,” she mused. “I’d go back and share a bike ride with my grandmother – why not?”

“It’s a time-travelling film without the time-travelling machine” – Céline Sciamma

In Petite Maman, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is navigating the confusing emotional terrain of family grief. Her grandmother has just died, and she accompanies her parents to her mother’s childhood home while they box up the elderly woman’s belongings. She strikes up a friendship with Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), another eight-year-old she meets in the woods, who has a strikingly similar appearance. They could almost be the same person.

The rapid bond provides Nelly with the companion to confide in she had ached for; consolation before she has even worked out how to articulate that need. Nervous about an upcoming hospital operation, Marion also finds solace. As our sense of the uncanny builds, we realise that the age barrier between generations has evaporated, and the connection between these females runs far deeper than that of mere holiday playmates.

The collapse of temporal boundaries is not made easy for audiences to put their fingers on. “I did the costumes myself, as I usually do,” said Sciamma. “I wanted the film to be timeless, and scanned 50 years of French interiors and fashions for commonalities.”

There is a thrilling dash of the Gothic in the film’s secrets, glades in the woods, and doubles. But it’s a quieter, gentler treasure than the French director’s prior Portrait of a Lady on Fire and its intense, 18th-century duel of gazes between a painter and her reluctant subject. It has as much in common with her earlier films Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lilies, which tapped subtle emotion in their portrayals of childhood and adolescence, their stirring desires and identity confusions. Sciamma names Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, whose anime is strong on feminist wonder, as an inspiration.

“Every film relies on our brain and heart to expand its universe. Petite Maman leaves room for your story to be looked at in that room” – Céline Sciamma

“I don’t feel like I have a special connection to childhood,” said Sciamma, despite the sensitive manner in which she has been able to access authentic truth in the space the girls’ friendship creates, avoiding sentimentality for something altogether more devastating. “I’m just being radically honest that kids are going through the same crises as all of us.”

Key, perhaps, is her refusal to patronise children, and her appreciation of what they give adults. “I wanted to show how kids care for us – grown-ups and parents – all the time,” she said. She takes their outlooks seriously, and the same goes for the acting process.

“When I work with kids there’s no rehearsal; it’s about trusting them,” she said. “We built the language of the film together, and it was really collaborative. It’s just about giving them the groove, and when they start speaking that groove it’s as deep as any actor – I don’t see any difference.”

“Collaborative” is a word that Sciamma uses a lot, and it’s clear that for her, it’s the essence of cinema – the making, and the collective experience of sharing it with an audience. “Every film relies on our brain and heart to expand its universe. Petite Maman leaves room for your story to be looked at in that room. I’m always embarrassed when I’m asked about meaning, because it is what you make it. The meaning is yours, so it’s not about what I think. It’s for us all to reflect and change perspectives.”

“It’s about leaving room for the audience’s imagination, and it’s designed as a 24-hour experience – not only what you’re experiencing in the room, but the night you’ll spend and what you’ll dream about,” she said. “There’s a magical side to it. And it’s a psychological tool that can console you, give you new images. This now belongs to you, and you can carry it with you.”

Today it was announced that MUBI has acquired all rights for Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman for the UK, Ireland and Turkey.