“Petite Maman” is a memory play for children, a children’s fantasy for grown-ups.
The latest film from Céline Sciamma, who gave us the Oscar-winning “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is an understated and distinctly adult look at childhood, death and remembrance. It’s a ghost story spun around a trying time for an eight year-old who loses her grandmother, and whose mother disappears, perhaps to sort out her grief. Nelly is left to deal with this unexpected desertion pretty much by herself, as her father is vague and evasive about what’s going on.
And at that moment, as Nelly searches the woods near the home her mother grew up in, looking for a play “hut” Mom once built, she meets a little girl her age, with her looks and her mother’s name. As Dad clears out his in-laws’ home by himself, Marion becomes a playmate and Nelly’s window into her family, her situation and her future.
Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz are the sisters cast as eight year-olds who could be twins to anyone seeing Nelly and Marion together for the first time. They’re in sync, joining in games, collaborating on finishing a hut Marion has already started, play-acting in a murder mystery they outline and then improvise, with Nelly as both the murder victim and the “inspector” grilling Marion, the suspect.
The film’s first scenes have established that Nelly is self-composed and mature beyond her years. She had befriended a number of women in her grandmother’s nursing home, and she kindly bids each goodbye as her mother (Nina Meurisse) stoically packs up her mother’s things.
Mother “Marion” is largely silent about her loss, putting on a brave but emotionally-blank face for her child. Her underreaction to this loss had me wondering if she was staff at the home, or some grief-numbed end-of-life caregiver. But no, this woman just lost her mother.
Going to clean out her parents’ house prompts questions from her little girl, not all of them of the banal how-she-grew-up nature.
“Does it upset you, being here,” Nelly wants to know (in French with English subtitles)?
This stranger Nelly meets doesn’t just look and sound like her. She is also self-sufficient, a “free range” kid whose mother (Margot Abascal) lets her use the stove to heat milk for porridge, play by herself in the woods and take Nelly on an inflatable raft out on the nearby lake with no adult supervision.
Others see Marion, who plainly isn’t a literal “ghost.” But she is someone Nelly, who doesn’t shed any more tears over her granny’s death than her mother, needs to process what’s going on in her life, with her parents and with her own absent mother in particular.
Sciamma tells this quiet, cryptic story with limited dialogue and spare usage of music. The setting is late fall, and the girls’ play can be upbeat and timeless — no wasted hours watching or interacting with a “screen” — but there’s a shadow hanging over it.
“Petite Maman,” whose “Little Mother” title lets us know that this “mystery” isn’t really what the film is about, is so thin on details that it invites the viewer to speculate and ruminate over grief and the losses that go along with the death of a parent — a childhood rendered more distant and disconnected, a future that can feel as unmoored as a kid’s first bad case of separation anxiety.
It’s a slight film, but as befits something as introspective and spooky as this, it’s not delicate or dainty. Nelly, Marion and we come to recognize that there is a psychological burden even when you don’t feel the weight of what you’ve lost, merely its absence.
Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Margot Abascal and Stéphane Varupenne
Credits: Scripted and directed by Céline Sciamma. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:12