Petite Maman

Petite Maman ★★★★½

Time, like most things, isn't linear. It absolves things and people of beginnings and ends, allows them to take different forms and continue existing. Memories fade in and out, shaping a path we can walk in any direction—the past, the future, it’s all relative. Sometimes, memory hits us suddenly and blends into reality, surrounding us in such a potent way—maybe it’s just a smell, maybe an item, maybe it’s the colour of a wallpaper we forgot about or a shadow on the floor. Maybe it’s simply a place that holds so much meaning that it transports us. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s our lineage.

Lineage is imprinted on us; every fibre of our being is a result of other people who came before us. I didn’t know my grandmother very well, I was never close to her—I kept her at a distance in a way I didn’t any other family member. And yet there are traces of her all over me. How I look, yes. But also how I am, fundamentally, in the deepest parts of myself. I have inherited her life; I can’t eat tomato and bell pepper peels when they become too hard, I have a thick passive resilience, I remain earnestly quiet. I recognize her when I look in the mirror. And I wonder what it would be like to have known her. I am also my mother, and my father, and my aunt, and my other grandparents—I recognize myself in each of them. Yet, I am also entirely myself. We are more than extensions of our parents, and in turn, they too are more than fragments of us.

When Nelly returns with her parents to her deceased maternal grandmother’s house, a portal opens. It’s opened by grief, by confusion, but it’s especially opened by a desire to really understand her mother. It’s opened by love. Their intimacy is established naturally, through kind, quiet gestures, through the quotidian in a situation that is anything but. So when her mother disappears, Nelly has to make sense of what is happening. Not through facts—she has those—but through feelings. How does her mother feel? But Céline Sciamma goes further and asks, what would it be like to know your mother as an equal? To communicate not as a mother and a daughter, but as true friends? And she opens up a rich world of possibilities, of joy, of understanding, of forgiveness.

In Petite Maman, a mother and daughter conjure each other up as a source of comfort and healing. Their doubts and confusion and fears are shared and assuaged by each other. Nelly sees her mother in a way no one else does. And she listens, really listens, to her. Attention is love. And from that love, magic happens. The illusory linearity of time crumbles and makes space for a meditation on filiation, on heritage, on the ways a daughter and a mother can recognize themselves in each other and forge a bond unbreakable by time, by age, by distance. In turn, by fully committing to and respecting the reality of Nelly’s perspective, this film sees her. It’s such a generous, tender, and playful depiction of what it means to be a child, and especially what it means to be a daughter. An ode to the power of the imagination and resilience of childhood, and to film as pushing the boundaries of time and memory, film as a place for boundless joy and healing.

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