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Film Review: Petite Maman

18 November 21 words: George White

After the stunning success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns with another heartfelt film...

Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Running time: 72 minutes

Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman won’t be everyone’s cup of tea - proven by the fact that an entire family walked out of this writer’s screening only five minutes in (although a hunch says they might just be slow readers who can’t deal with the apparently insurmountable challenge of subtitles). However, for fans of the French director’s recent masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this will undoubtedly leave its mark. An intimate look at family and childhood, it is a small budget story that is well worthy of its critical acclaim. 

Petite Maman - which only just counts as a feature length film, at 72 minutes - follows eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as she and her parents clear out her grandmother’s home after she passes away. While staying at the house, Nelly becomes friends with Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age who she feels an instant connection to. 

The relationship that blossoms between the pair is earnest and heartfelt, with the girls - twin sisters away from the screen - developing a playful dynamic that leads to a string of charming moments. Whether performing their own plays together or building a den in the woods, there is an uplifting energy to their friendship, taking the audience back to the joyful simplicity of their own childhoods. 

Yet this relationship develops into something much deeper and more meaningful as the story progresses, with a surprising twist laying the groundwork for some real moments of sincerity between the characters. As a profound level of trust forms between Nelly and Marion, the script reaches greater heights as the newfound friends share their thoughts and feelings with one another, finding solace in each other’s company.

Sciamma once again delivers the uniquely thoughtful tone that is defining her as a filmmaker

The Sanz sisters are impressive throughout the film, navigating their way through the surprisingly sophisticated challenges that Sciamma lays down for them with a maturity beyond their years. In what is ultimately a pretty slow film, the director relies on the performances of her stars, and they manage it with remarkable levels of ease. 

Sciamma once again delivers the uniquely thoughtful tone that is defining her as a filmmaker, managing to keep the audience engaged in the story despite taking time to embrace every little detail and every minor moment. As was the case in Portrait, there is a notable lack of score here, with only one song present throughout the movie’s runtime. This allows a focus on the incredible work of the film’s sound design team, who perform miracles to immerse the viewer in this attentive story. 

Again, this may not be for everyone, but the film is okay with that, choosing instead to tell its own tale without worrying about playing for a mass audience. For those it does strike a chord with, though, this will be one of the most impactful releases of the year. It’s a small film with a very big heart.

Did you know? Director Céline Sciamma has a fear of dogs, no matter their size.

Petite Maman is in cinemas from Friday 19 November. 

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