We’re sure this is the case for many, many people but watching Celine Sciamma‘s latest dose of wonderfulness, a thought we have all had since it popped its little head out again to ask us to contemplate the same questions. Without rambling, that thought is the one that stems back to everyone’s first watch of Back to the Future: if you had the chance to meet them when they were younger, do you think you would become friends with your parents? Maybe it’s just us, but that idea comes with so many connotations, questions and imaginings that it would be something both surreal and beautiful.
We mention Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale‘s 1985 masterpiece again 36 years later because, in a somewhat similar vein, Sciamma‘s Petite Maman toys with parallel themes and while we won’t say too much more on the film’s narrative choices, it’s hard to ignore the familiar melodies. Nelly (Josephine Sanz), a young girl still discovering much about the world, has just had to say goodbye to her grandmother who meant so much to her and is trying to get her head around her death. She and her parents head to her home to clear out the remaining possessions and, while they are there, Nelly is able to explore the surrounding autumnal woodland. When her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse) stricken with grief, leaves them to finish the work, she heads deeper into the woods to occupy herself and meets another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who is busy building a treehouse and introduces herself as Marion.
In just her fifth film (it feels like many more), Sciamma once again showcases her unique and breathtaking abilities to tell truthful, meaningful and real stories from a female perspective and the journey therein. Here, with a back-step from 2014’s superb Girlhood, she examines life in the formative years as girls begin to learn about life – both their own and those they may one day create themselves – and death, saying goodbye and the unique relationship they share with their mothers. These are big questions that any young girl wants answers to, but just like Nelly finds throughout the film, there’s a self discovery and rite of passage to take place first before they crystallise into answers.
In addition, this is as much about those themes as it is a celebration of childhood, that time of our lives when we love nothing more than a friend to play with and build things with, learning about friendship, sharing and caring with and for another person for the first time. That experience is never equalled when we hit our adult years and, with the brisk, hazy, dream-like cinematography from Claire Mathon, it’s as if we are transported back to our developing years anew, running through the crunching leaves and twigs underfoot, making pancakes and playing acting with Nelly and Marion. And the precocious actors at the centre of it? Both are spellbinding and the only disappointment is knowing you won’t be going back during the summer to do it all over again with them.
Sumptuous and engaging, touching and brilliantly funny, delicate and wonderful, Petite Maman will be hard to beat when it comes to “Best of the Year” lists but we’ll make this statement for now: nothing will be quite as magical as this. A fairytale you never want to end.
Drama, World Cinema | France, 2021 | 12A | Cinema | 19th November 2021 (UK), 18th February 2022 (MUBI) | MUBI | Dir.Céline Sciamma | Nina Meurisse, Margot Abascal, Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz