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Petite Maman: All About My Mom

Céline Sciamma’s poetic play in the woods is one of the few films made possible by the lockdown.

From the virtuality of the penultimate Berlinale competition, hopefully the only online event of its kind, Céline Sciamma’s contribution has found its way to the cinema. At 72 minutes, “Petite Maman” is a “petit film” that can only be born in a time of pandemic: not long enough to complain about psychology or dramatic twists. But just right to deal with images as carefully as a short film that has no time to waste.

Here is the brief plot idea, noted on the back of a stamp: An eight-year-old is dealing with the death of her beloved grandmother and at the same time has to deal with the absence of her mother. When she becomes acquainted with a girl of the same age, whom she meets in a forest, even oversized thoughts naturally turn into games and conversations.

Both girls look confusingly alike, and as the credits know, they are played by sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. In fact, the secret of the intuitive connection between these film characters is quickly revealed: the child is dealing with a girl version of his mother, who is building the playhouse of her childhood out of branches. Obviously, the gorgeous autumn forest has the qualities of a twilight zone.

Shot during the second French lockdown in 2021, the film only takes place in two places: from grandma’s nursing home to the small forest house of the deceased, which is to be cleared. When the mother leaves in a hurry, the girl stays with her father.

The new acquaintance might seem a bit scary at first sight: the jacket and jeans are so shockingly “eighties” that the fashion radar of eight-year-olds is likely to jump on. Before we identify the ghost of a living person in the girl, we suspected an even darker variety of romance: a revenant story, as told by Hollywood in the classics “Portrait of Jennie” or “Peter Ibbetson”.

Instead, we are dealing with a philosophical discourse film among children, the central theme of their young friendship is of course the pain of parting: the deceased grandmother is also present in a younger edition, so that the girl has the opportunity to make up for a missed last farewell.

Céline Sciamma, to whom we owe the furious romantic love drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in 2019, resisted the temptation to inflate a poetic miniature to the wrong size. Like all her films, including “Tomboy”, “Water Lillies”, “Girlhood” and – as a screenwriter – “My Life as Zucchini”, this one also tells a coming-of-age story – albeit a bit detached from age. The girls’ dialogues sound more adult-like, which at times is a bit reminiscent of the serious moments in “Peanuts”. On the other hand, the protagonist can also be uninhibitedly precocious towards her father – an irresistible quality in eight-year-old girls. Once she remarks meaningfully: “I am your daughter. I come from the path behind you.”

A comprehensive film-historical research project will probably deal with “filmmaking in lockdown” soon after Corona: An eye for all the chamber plays and the extras-free outdoor shoots soon developed. But only a few artists made a real virtue out of necessity like Sciamma. Sicamma speaks of having dreamed this film. And with global success behind her, she was able to shoot it just as quickly as she had written it. It’s the kind of film that Jean Cocteau made – a kind of philosophical fairy tale film that’s totally ageless.

When the child’s father has finished clearing out the house a little earlier and urges them to go home, the girl asks for one last day with her new friend. She has known for a long time that this will be her last chance. Sciamma and her cinematographer Claire Mathon, who composed the picturesque images of the previous film, master the magic of minimalism: the autumn light when completing the forest house, the candles at a children’s birthday party, the twilight during a boat trip in Dani Karavan’s sculpture park Ax Majeur.

It is quite possible that one can dream up films like Celine Sciamma. It’s hard to believe that they will turn out to be exactly the same.

Little mom. F 2021. Regie: Celine Sicamma. 72 Mins.

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