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Petite Maman (2021) | Review

Petite Maman (2021) follows Nelly as she copes with the death of her grandmother by bonding with her mother, Marion. The film takes on a fantastical quality as Nelly is seemingly able to talk to a young version of her mother in a house that looks a lot like her grandmother's house. With the film never explaining how she came to do this, Nelly repeatedly returns and as a result, begins to understand her own grief, as well as her mother's.

The film acts a cathartic fantasy, where a child is able to easily heal their parents of their pain, where they are able to live on the same level, for a short while, as the carer rather than the cared for. The fact that we don't know if this is Marion or Nelly's fantasy seems intentional. The film doesn't ask us to rationalise the events of the film, but rather feel the way grief completely changes the worlds of these characters. For Marion, she reverts to her childhood self as a way to spend more time her mother, as a way to assuage her regrets for not being a better daughter. For Nelly, her adventures with her mother's child self are a journey of maturation, joyously adverse to harsh realities of adulthood. She comes to understand her mother by watching her play, by seeing her interact with her childhood home.

As an adult watching this film, we know that Marion leaves part way through to save Nelly from having to see her mother sad. But we are encouraged to see this film through the eyes of a child, and for a brief time, believe that either Nelly has been sent back in time or Marion has been transformed into her younger self, both implied to be form a self-healing. 

I think what caused me to cry whilst watching this in the cinema was the catharsis of having a parent say explicitly that in no way is a child to blame for their parents sadness, and that even though Nelly tries her hardest to heal her mother, it is ultimately the job of Marion to take on that responsibility and not burden her young child with the sadness she doesn't have the emotional maturity to cope with. It's an incredibly fulfilling fantasy.

Celine Sciamma's films create an intimacy that is deeply personal, inviting us into mundane moments with the intent of ingratiating the audience into the world of the film. From there, we can run around the woods, build a den and come home to have a warm drink with our child protagonist. It never feels alien. Her films feel like coming home.