Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was the first French film I ever watched. I had never thought that a film with sparse dialogue and devoid of a score could make me feel so many things. It was unlike anything I had ever watched before and I knew then that I was watching an artist’s masterpiece. It came as no surprise that Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” rocketed to the top of my movie list the second it was released. I watched “Petite Maman” at a nearly empty screening at Ann Arbor’s State Theatre, and yet I hardly noticed my solitude.
“Petite Maman” follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz, debut), an 8-year-old girl who has just lost her grandmother. Nelly and her parents return to clean out the house that her mother grew up in. In typical 8-year-old fashion, Nelly’s curiosity leads her to explore the house and the woods behind it, and she meets a girl of the same age named Marion, (Gabrielle Sanz, debut) with whom she has an instant and strangely familiar connection. Their connection is made even more intriguing, given that Marion looks identical to Nelly and shares a name with Nelly’s mother. It is a story of grief, friendship and love through a child’s eyes.
Sciamma’s style is at the forefront in this movie, as she once again relies on silent scenes and sounds of nature to convey emotion. It’s a film about a child, yet it’s not a children’s film. Nelly reminded me so much of myself as a kid. She conducts herself the way you would expect an 8-year-old to — full of curiosity and eager to explore — but she’s also introspective and quiet. She doesn’t quite say what she’s feeling to anyone, yet with every scene, you can tell exactly what she’s thinking. This speaks to the astounding performance of Joséphine Sanz as well as her twin, Gabrielle Sanz, who plays Marion with the same force of personality. Sciamma excels in portraying the view of the world that we all had in childhood: one where the days consisted of exploration and asking questions, there are no inhibitions and you can make a new friend by helping them build a treehouse, no introductions necessary.
Sciamma invites the viewer to look at the world in the way that Nelly does — patiently, with purpose and with an open mind. Nothing about the film is shocking and there are no moments of violent emotion. Rather, every revelation comes about gradually, and emotional moments are built up over time. The two girls are serious, almost stoic for their age. Yet, when we see them act out a fake crime drama or make pancakes together, we can see the story for what it really is: a private fantasy world of their own, one that every viewer is invited to take part in.
In a film where dialogue is sparse, every word is delivered with purpose and has so many meanings behind it. In yet another masterpiece, Sciamma states that the world can be a much more beautiful place in the eyes of a child. “Petite Maman” shows us that many emotions like love and grief are never stagnant, but constantly defined and redefined by everyone’s experiences.
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at email@example.com.