Blog Directory CineVerse: Child is mother to the woman

Child is mother to the woman

Friday, February 2, 2024

Céline Sciamma, acclaimed director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, followed up that critical darling with another standout French work, Petite Maman (2021), which means “little mom.” Starring wonderfully precocious twin sister actresses, the movie has received acclaim for its emotional richness, subtle storytelling, and examination of intricate themes. Sciamma's skilled direction, along with compelling performances and a heartfelt narrative, has earned it kudos as a memorable cinematic text that connects with audiences through its genuine and poignant depiction of relationships.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

Among the distinctive, memorable, and surprising facets of Petite Maman is the fact that this could very well be a science fiction film. It’s easy to assume that eight-year-old Nelly is a lonely but intensely creative and imaginative kid who fantasizes these encounters with her mother, who has suddenly appeared as a playmate of the same age. But consider that we see her father interact with and acknowledge young Marion, and he allows Nelly to stay one more day at the house after agreeing to let the girls enjoy a sleepover. Also, recall that young Marion tells Nelly “I’m already thinking about you”; at the film’s conclusion, Nelly and Marion call each other by their real names and there seems to be an innate understanding by the characters, and the audience, that adult Marion has been positively affected by Nelly’s time travel experience.

The casual but direct way that the filmmakers suddenly introduce the notion of time travel and fantasy, without explaining how or why it’s happening, is remarkable. Without exposition, we and Nelly are unexpectedly thrust into the past, and visual cues—like the grandmother’s wallpaper and bathroom tile—inform us, without fanfare, that a magically impossible journey is occurring.

Regardless of how fantastically you interpret the story, this is one of the best family films and movies about childhood released in the 21st Century, a work that can appeal to any age but that can prove particularly relevant to adults who need to be reminded of the wonders and mysteries of childhood and what we can learn from our youthful pasts. “(Petite Maman) immerses us into the world of childhood where magic and dreams and the impossible are all still possible, before the world has beaten it out of us. It evokes the ethos of Supertramp’s 1979 “The Logical Song,” which is all about how the world doesn’t just expect, but demands that everything that is wonderful about childhood be left behind in favor of rigor and logic…(it) celebrates that space where everything is still wonderful, a miracle, beautiful, and magical,” said critic James Kendrick.

Fortunately, Sciamma isn’t sentimentally coercive. The picture doesn’t constantly shift into heartstrings overdrive mode by slathering on mawkish moments or excessively tender scenes designed to make our eyes moist. There isn’t even a score. “Petite Maman is full of scenes…that aim for a casual nonchalance that allows the viewer to absorb them without a telegraphed emotion,” reviewer Odie Henderson wrote. “It allows you to fill in the blanks.”

Consider how Petite Maman is similarly structured to Sciamma’s earlier Portrait of a Lady on Fire. NPR critic Justin Chang astutely observed that, “In both films, two female characters are granted a brief, even utopian retreat from the outside world and something mysterious and beautiful transpires.”

There are also hints that this is a narrative about nonconforming gender expression in a child. Remember that Nelly knows the location of her grandmother’s hidden closet, a word that carries all manner of connotations today, and that she asks her grandmother for help tying her necktie, an article of clothing normally associated with males.

“Child is father to the man,” poet William Wordsmith wrote, or in this case “mother to the woman.” Petite Maman demonstrates how our personality is significantly shaped by the behaviors and activities during our childhood, but it also suggests that we can live better as adults by remembering the truths we learned as kids.

Moreso than any other film in recent memory, this work explores how temporal perceptions change as we age. As children, time seems to crawl, but we also have more time to explore the world and our own imaginations. As adults, time goes by increasingly faster and we are continually reminded of the inevitability of death when our parents pass and our own mortality when our offspring mature. Petite Maman reminds us to slow down and recall periods in our youth when we were afforded the luxury of extra time—not only to dream and play but to sort and comprehend a gigantic world that shrinks with advancing years.

The filmmakers are also nudging us to trust our offspring and our own inner child. By reconnecting with our past younger selves and cherishing our formative memories, we can learn to better cope with the stress and challenges of adulthood. Additionally, Petite Maman encourages us to form stronger bonds of affection, understanding, and respect with our sons and daughters, especially when they are young, tender, and impressionable, and to remember that nurturing can go both ways in a healthy parent-child relationship: Ponder how Nelly feeds her mother and hugs her from behind in the car. “Petite maman races us into the future that is the “path behind” us, an ancestral reminder to do, together, what makes us feel happy; to say goodbye to the straight time that commands us to abandon childhood. To see it again,” Criterion Collection essayist So Mayer wrote.

Perhaps most importantly, this film is a portrait of grief and how a child tries to cope with the loss of a loved one. Nelly feels guilty for not properly saying goodbye to her now-deceased grandmother. But by traveling back in time, or fantasizing, she can both reconnect with her grandmother and forge a deeper, more lasting rapport with her mother.

Similar works

  • Curse of the Cat People
  • The Five Devils
  • The Quiet Girl
  • Ponette
  • The Florida Project
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • A Little Princess
  • The Red Balloon
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • The Spirit of the Beehive
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Where the Wild Things Are

Other films by Céline Sciamma

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • Girlhood
  • Tomboy
  • Water Lilies

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