‘Petite Maman’ Is a Low-Key Masterpiece of Whispering Beauty

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' looks at daughters, mothers, and how time shapes us.

Gabrielle Sanz(l) and Joséphine Sanz Pyramide Distribution

Petite Maman, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is delicate and quiet, evoking emotion with subtle moments that linger long after the credits have rolled. It’s a film that’s equal parts about the fragility of childhood and the tension of familial ties, and its success relies on the subtle power of Sciamma’s arresting child actors. 

PETIT MAMAN ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Written by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascals
Running time: 72 mins.

As the film opens, eight-year-old Nelly, played by Joséphine Sanz, has just lost her elderly grandmother, although she doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means emotionally. She and her parents arrive to the house where her mom (Nina Meurisse) grew up, which is located on the edge of a forest. Her mom is grappling with the loss of a parent and can’t seem to connect with Nelly, who instead wanders out into the woods to process her own sense of grief. There, she encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, who is Joséphine’s real-life sister), another young girl who looks strikingly like Nelly. The pair become fast friends, relieved to find a connection and playmate, and it slowly dawns on the viewer exactly who Marion is. 

To say more might venture into spoiler territory, although the film’s title contains the obvious clue to how Nelly and Marion are related. There’s a fantastical element to the story, but it’s so nuanced you might not even notice it’s happening. Instead, Sciamma allows the emotion to lead, evoking a sense of bittersweet nostalgia as she explores the relationship between Nelly and Marion. Petite Maman is, as the title suggests, a film about daughters and their mothers and the fraught dynamic between them. But it’s also about how time shapes us, transforming the optimism of youth into something more jaded. We grow up with the best of intentions, but life often shakes us off that path. 

There are deeply beautiful scenes and lines in Petite Maman (one line, in particular, has resonated in my head since seeing the film for the first time last year). It’s the sort of film that tip-toes and whispers, rather than shouts, and the viewer’s age and relationship with their own parents will impact how its meaning is perceived. The plot is scant—Nelly and Marion enact a play and wander through the woods to build a fort while Nelly tries to make sense of her mother’s emotional distance—but the feeling it evokes is overwhelming. 

Visually, Sciamma builds a world that augments the conflicting emotions of the story. Lionel Brison’s production design and Claire Mathon’s cinematography ensure that the aesthetic tone matches the narrative tone (Sciamma herself did the costume design). Nelly’s grandmother’s house, in particular, is vintage perfection, filled with touches that suggest years gone by. Petite Maman invites us to literally look backward as the characters come face-to-face with their pasts and it’s deeply effective. 

Petite Maman is a low-key masterpiece. It’s so low-key, in fact, that it may bypass a lot of viewers completely, particularly those who don’t gravitate naturally toward foreign films. But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip this one. The power of film is that it allows us to see ourselves reflected onscreen, and the themes and emotions Sciamma explores here are universal—and undeniable. It’s a small film that leaves behind big ripples. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Petite Maman’ Is a Low-Key Masterpiece of Whispering Beauty