Petit Maman

Review by Brí Joyce

How does an eight year old navigate pain? Is time travel extraordinary; or is it a natural effect of a world that is built on inheritance and cycles of death and lineage? What insight can a child have into the adult world?

These are the questions Celine Schiamma proposes in her new film, ‘Petit Maman’.

The film opens with goodbyes and transforms into a new investigation of what we, through the perspective of a child, can learn from being left by our loved ones. The film is a meditation on the preternatural bonds between a Mother, a child and a playmate. Uniquely, the film offers a perspective on youth as a gift that has its own autonomous intelligibility, logic and coherence; instead of a condition of ignorance, with its own frail mortality and demise in sight. 

 Through the film, this locus of youth is achieved through beautiful camera work. The film follows Nelly (Joesphine Sanz)’s eyeline alone, causing her to be eerily dwarfed alongside the objects and figures of the adult world around her. Exceptionally, the film portrays the silent and lonely world of an only child with great silence. This silence has an intensifying quality to all of the dialogue of the film and the events that occur.

However, this bold use of silence loans the central children of the story a self possession that is uncanny and almost preposterous when associated with an actual breathing-living child. Having worked at a kids Summer Camp for three months, I can safely assure the readers that I have never met children (or perhaps even adults) with the self seriousness and wisdom of Sciammas characters. That said, that flaw can lend an endearing quality to the characters, by heightening the sense of loneliness and gifted specialness of the eight year olds in question. Thus encouraging the adult viewers (because this is a film for adults) to identify more strongly with the young ‘uns.

Despite the self seriousness of the protagonists, moments of joy are illuminated  when the children play pretend. They act as themselves to one another. This allows the children to be freed from gender roles and the stifling loneliness and responsibility that they feel towards their parents. Like Schiammas previous blockbuster, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) there is a coy, irascible and physical humour that serves as a relief and revelation among the fraught emotional landscape and continued silence of the film. My only qualm is that this humour isn’t thrown in with regularity. 

The one deviation from the film’s soundtrack of silence is the ecstatic synth contemporary pop music in the closing scene. The children race through nature, untethered and free from worry. This reminds the viewer that love, resilience, and family bonds can work in scintillating and oftentimes cycular emotional cycles. This sense of redemption and freedom is the final impression that  Sciamma so imprints the viewer with. In light of the forlorn mood of the story, this is a generous resolution to the frequently one-note atmosphere that is in danger of boring the viewer. 

This is not a movie I would invite the lads to but should you need to bring your parents out the cinema for a tender, clever and affecting picture of highly subjective beauty, this is your film.

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