Now Playing — Petite Maman

The core conceit of Petite Maman emerges with gentle grace. A young family — mother, father, eight-year-old daughter — returns to a childhood home to clear out the belongings of a recently deceased relative. It is a somber affair, but also somewhat businesslike. They go through the few items in the house — the relative, the mother of the family’s mother, had clearly moved to an assisted-living facility some time earlier — and collectively consider the choices than need to be made and the tasks that need to be completed in order to put the house up for sale. There are reminiscences, though they are few. There’s a strong sense that this small family already knows all the stories that could be told. Then, without warning, the mother leaves. Maybe she was overwhelmed by the process of clearing away her parent’s life, or maybe, the film implies, there’s a lingering emotional hurt that prompted her act of self-removal.

When the daughter, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), roams the woods near her deceased grandmother’s home, she encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), another girl who is about the same age. Marion is dragging enormous branches across the landscape in order to build a fort, the same sort of structure Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) had once built on that very terrain. Gradually, and yet without much delay, Nelly realizes there is something extremely familiar about Marion and the house where she lives.

I’m being coy about the details of the situation, but writer-director Céline Sciamma isn’t. The strange happenings are explained plainly by the characters, albeit with a level of understatement that doesn’t fully align with the reality-bending wonderment. In that respect, it’s a satisfyingly French version of magical realism. Without shunting the film into sentiment or pushy profundity, Sciamma offers an intelligent consideration of the ways people strain to know their loved ones, especially their parents. Understanding is elusive, which only stirs greater longing for it. Petite Maman calls for delicacy, and that’s precisely what Sciamma brings to it.

Enhancing the moving emotion and sly details in the film’s storytelling, Sciamma continues the mastery of visuals that distinguished her prior film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Reuniting with cinematographer Claire Mathon, Sciamma renders the film with shots of exquisite beauty that never succumb to preciousness. They are elegant without being ostentatious, always grounded in the best, wisest way to move the narrative forward while deepening its meaning. The film runs just over seventy minutes and is perfectly the right length, marked less by brevity and more by efficiency. There’s not a wasted moment, no indulgences whatsoever. Petite Maman is one of those rare films that feels as if it sprung to life organically to exist casually and confidently in its plain truth. Succumbing to that belief, though, is an undue diminishment of Sciamma’s work. The film isn’t conjured by magic; it’s the work of an artist.

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