In the week that blockbuster sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife attempts to create a connection between generations with some supernatural help, here is an understated French film on a similar theme. Petite Maman may not be an actual ghost story but there is definitely something étrange going on in its bucolic neighbourhood. The result is a mysterious but deeply moving meditation on mother-daughter relationships.
It is all filtered through eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a thoughtful young girl going through her first experience of bereavement after the recent passing of her grandmother. This loss has also unmoored Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), particularly after returning to the rural house she grew up in to have one last big clearout.
For Nelly, her grandmother’s old-fashioned home and the rustic woods surrounding it are an instant playground, a place to mess around with some of her mum’s old toys and explore the undergrowth for pleasing pebbles. For her maman, it is a house overflowing with memories. She introduces Nelly to the bobbing branch that used to make her imagine shadow creatures lurking at the foot of her bed on dark nights. This rush of reminiscence ends up all being just a little too much for Marion and she departs, leaving her husband – an easygoing, beardy hipster played by Stéphane Varupenne – to complete the tidying up while keeping half an eye on Nelly. (In one particularly Gallic vignette, Dad gravely requests permission from his pensive daughter to enjoy an after-dinner cigarette out the kitchen window.)
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Then things get a little weird. Nelly meets a new playmate in the woods, a young girl who could be her mirror image (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s real-life twin). The two strike up an instant rapport, constructing a secret gang hut from saplings and string. Their physical resemblance is not the only instance of uncanny twinning; when Nelly’s new friend invites her home for a play date, it is essentially her grandmother’s house revisited.
By this stage, even those who have fallen behind on their Duolingo language-learning app might have roughly translated the title and have an inkling as to what is going on. But rather than try to conjure up an explanation for the warp in space-time required to create these impossibly overlapping lives, Petite Maman seems more interested in exploring the emotional possibilities.
This is writer/director Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her poised period drama about the highly charged relationship between two women in 18th-century Brittany: one an Italian countess, the other a hired companion with a secret agenda. To go from that intense story to something so contemporary starring a pair of kids might seem like a major gear change. But Sciamma has previously coaxed wonderful performances from child actors in her films Tomboy (2011) and Water Lilies (2007). Here, the Sanz sisters are terrific. Their performances toggle from philosophically self-serious to plausibly goofy, all while seeming spontaneous.