How can I inspire you to see Céline Sciamma’s new film Petite Maman without spoiling it for you?

If you have children who can read subtitles, how can I convince you to spend the evening watching it as a family?

Chances are that if you’ve read anything about this quietly enchanting fantasy, or even seen a trailer, you already know its whimsical twist. But I hope not. I’m glad that I wandered into it without knowing anything except that it was an unusually short feature film and that it was by the director of the exquisitely tragic love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire (one of my ten favorite films of 2020). If you do know what’s coming, well —  it won’t ruin the movie for you. In fact, having seen the whole thing, I am eager to see it again, confident I will enjoy it even more. But it’s a rare occasion that a movie’s revelations will inspire smiles of joy and wonder like this one does.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

Petite Maman — which, if I have any reliable memories from my high-school French lessons, must mean “Little Mother” — follows young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) out into the woods to the house of the one they have recently lost: Nelly’s grandmother, Marion’s mother. In the haunted quiet of that house — one visited by gentle apparitions of reflected light that would have pleased Kieslowski — Nelly struggles to accept that she did not give her grandmother a proper goodbye. And Marion, who seems to be melancholy by nature and now must contend with deep grief, has things to work out as well.

What happens next is this enchanted forest, well — you will you will discover it all too easily from the movie’s marketing if you’re paying attention. (Try not to.) Suffice it to say that it’s a rare kind of movie magic, achieved by very young actors without any digital animation or technical special effects. And their company is so delightful that you’ll be likely to wish that movie was longer. Sciamma is a filmmaker who knows that less is more. No need to hit the two-hour mark unless it’s absolutely necessary. This has all the weight of a full feature film, and it’s a slight 72 minutes.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

But for Sciamma, it isn’t a small movie. Talking to film critic Carlos Aguilar at The Los Angeles Times, she said, “I don’t see Petite Maman as a modest film. The impact I want it to have is to give us a new mythology to understand ourselves and heal. … Rather than just looking back and realize our parents were also kids, it’s a form of future perception of them. It’s about connecting, but about being reunited. That’s why it’s my dream for the film to be watched in a theater filled with adults and kids, because the film respects them both equally.”

[MAY 13, 2022 UPDATE: Having now seen it twice, I must echo Sciamma’s hope. The film is so much more beautiful on a big screen, its silences so much stronger. If I were seeking to inspire in children a love of cinema, this is one of the first films I would take them to see. And I would be fascinated to ask them what they thought of it afterwards.]

This modest, intimate, magical story may seem like quite a surprising turn for Sciamma, whose Lumière award-winning Girlhood was such a starkly realistic portrait of adolescence, and whose Cannes award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire was so wise and so meaningfully erotic. But one remarkable quality they all share is a patient and hopeful attentiveness to suffering.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

As I watched it, I was vividly reminded of two very special films: Jacques Doillon’s Ponette and John Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish. The films share some unusual strengths: In all three, we follow observant and intelligent children through territory scarred with loss and sadness. In all three, the film’s delicate fairy-tale tone must be inspired and sustained by talented child actors. In all three those actors are convincing — they seem entirely unaware of the cameras and entirely convinced of their narrative circumstances. And in all three, we find a similar spirit of tenderness.

But — as more than one friend of mine has observed — there’s more than a little My Neighbor Totoro in the mix here, too. (Sciamma herself agrees, according to that Los Angeles Times piece.) Don’t get the wrong idea — this movie doesn’t need big, fuzzy, huggable trolls or flying cats. It has all of the magic it needs in sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who strike a powerfully authentic tone of playful kinship, saving the film from a high risk of sentimentality, and inspiring our suspension of disbelief. (Disbe-grief?)

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

2022 has been a year full of movies about mothers and daughters: In both Everything Everywhere All at Once and Turning Red, the mothers need enlightenment and their daughters must become exasperated and dangerous in order to smack them out of their ignorance. Both films, though they have their strengths, seem compelled to reach a frantic pace, as if that’s what it takes to entertain audiences. What that costs the audience is a chance to be drawn in, to have visual and aural space in which to contemplate. And watching Petite Maman, we have the opportunity to reflect, to ask questions, to imagine possibilities and implications. Above all, we have the chance to empathize. By Ebert’s famous definition, “A movie is a machine that generates empathy.” And that makes this, far more than either of the other major mother/daughter films of the year, a great movie.

And so, with great respect for the joy of discovering this film, I will let this be the extent of my review. I want your experience with this film to be full of surprises. It’s so gentle, so full of admirable restraint, so radiant with childlike curiosity, I feel unusually motivated to preserve its subtle pleasures for you without any hints in advance.

I’ll give the last words here to my friend and my favorite film critic: Steven D. Greydanus. He calls Petite Maman an “exquisite little film” and recommends it “for all ages.” At Catholic World Report, he writes,

Not long ago … I remarked on my abiding love of time travel for its power to speak to deep human longings to undo past wrongs and heal incurable wounds: to offer, in a word, an imaginative picture of redemption beyond anything we experience in the ordinary flow of time. There’s no place in a film like Petite Maman for world-bending sorcery or flux capacitors, but the elegant simplicity of what Sciamma does with an unexplained wrinkle in the fabric of reality speaks as eloquently to those longings as any film I’ve seen.

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