Berlinale 2021: Petite maman

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight years old when her grandmother dies. Nelly and her mother (Nina Meurisse) are both sad as they empty her room at the nursing home and say farewell to her elderly friends. Next they meet Nelly’s dad at Nelly’s mom’s childhood home, which also needs to be packed up. Nelly and her grandma were quite close, and the death has taken a toll on them all. But the next day, Nelly’s mom is gone, and only her dad (Stéphane Varupenne) is left to box up an old woman’s life. The sadness was too much for mom, Nelly is told, though mom is often sad, and Nelly is worried that mom might not come back.

While her father works diligently, Nelly explores the outdoors in search of a cabin her mother constructed out of sticks as a child many years ago. In the woods she finds something even better: a playmate. Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) is also eight years old, and is devoting her time to building a little cabin out of sticks. Nelly knows right away who Marion is; it’s her mother, as a child. When Marion brings Nelly back to her house, grandma is alive and well, and 20-some years younger. The girls, who look like they could be twins (and are indeed played by twins), are immediate best friends. Being eight, Nelly doesn’t much care how or why this time anomaly has permitted her such an intimate new playmate, she just takes it at its face value and enjoys the time with her little mother.

Imagine, if your old brain still has any magic left in it, encountering your own mother as a child, when you yourself are also a child. This is such a beautiful, innocent thought experiment I can’t believe I’ve never seen it done before.

Nelly takes full advantage, asking her mother things that are much harder, and sometimes impossible, to broach between mother and child under normal circumstances. And Marion has questions too. “Did I want you?” she asks in all innocence. “Yes,” comes the reply. “I’m not surprised,” Marion responds, while gently stroking Nelly’s cheek, “I’m already thinking of you.”

Writer-director Céline Sciamma infuses this film with such tenderness that I constantly feel like weeping, though the film is not particularly emotional or fraught. The two young actresses are absolute perfection, like little dolls who are made for each other. It helps us to understand that his manifestation is somehow essential to Nelly’s grief and loneliness during a painful time. This is next-level self-soothing and the whole thing is coated in such a thick layer of loving kindness that I’m pretty sure I want some too.

9 thoughts on “Berlinale 2021: Petite maman

  1. selizabryangmailcom

    To constantly feel tears prickling while the movie’s not overly emotional is an amazing accomplishment. The director really hit a bull’s-eye with a perfect balance, sounds like.

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  2. Carol

    That’s an intriguing idea for a movie. Makes me think about my own mother and the ways I might have befriended her in a similar scenario. Nice to get these perspectives from a different culture. Thanks for reviewing.

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