David Cuevas takes a look at ‘Petite Maman′, as part of FilmHounds’ ongoing Toronto International Film Festival coverage.

Riding off the momentous cultural phenomenon of #portraitnation, French director Céline Sciamma basically went from film-based underdog to celebrated auteur overnight. After the prominent North American release and pedantic fandom of her 2019 feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire, many were desperately awaiting for her follow up feature. So to put it simply, high expectations were already set in stone. Returning back to her more traditional routes of child-punctuated domestic drama over romanticism-infused tragedies, her latest highly anticipated venture entitled ‘Petite Maman’ delivers a more soft-spoken directional vision that infuses magic realism and a potent coming-of-age narrative.

Actually, scratch that. More than anything, Petite Maman is a coming-of-generational guilt and grief story; a film about clashing memories and the burdens of childhood which overcome the presence of death and mortality. At one moment, the film’s adorable protagonist Nelly whispers to her friend: “You didn’t invent my sadness”. Quite the dense material for a film featuring two eight year olds at its core if you ask me, but neither the less still compelling due to Sciamma’s refreshing perspective and refusal for narrative hand holding.

Sciamma’s film also has a concise purpose — an articulated message that more than satisfies in its pathos and payoff through the power of the moving image. The film prevails most when Sciamma shares moments of improvised freedom between the child actors; moments of pure unsupervised playfulness and role-play. Set prominently during the film’s third act, a particular coca-cola-related subplot is by far the strongest and liveliest footnote in Sciamma’s 72 minute drama — a humorous set of scenes that will leave the most impenetrable viewer laughing along with the film’s juvenile leads. 

Still Courtesy – Elevation Pictures

Yet as for the remaining two acts, Sciamma’s traditional blank-eyed blocking and static character positioning provides a taste of artificiality to a film desperately in need of further experimentation. Céline Sciamma’s typical trademarks are all somewhat present: expositional albeit brief dialogue, a redundant reiteration of the central theme, implementation of the spoken word over physical action, and a slightly aggravating refusal to conclude her film without at least repeating the concluding moral as bluntly as possible. On top of that, the film’s universe is strangely self-contained with a lack of spatial geography. Nelly’s world is cornered with an absence of variety in shot-composition and even the subtle implementation of visual metaphor — mise-en-scène techniques which could have enhanced the audience’s engagement with the narrative material. 

Petite Maman succeeds most prevalently whenever Sciamma experiments with her form — improvised moments of pure childhood joy are particular highlights in her reflexive narrative on motherhood and generational grief. Even with the inclusion of some of Sciamma’s less favourable trademarks, Petite Maman’s heart-trending resolution offers a glimpse of hope during a time of intense anguish. But most importantly, the staggeringly familiar narrative serves as a solemn comfort tool for those who have recently experienced a loss of a loved one, or are currently attempting to process the weight of their own grief. Even with its flawed moments of thematic redundancy, there’s an admirable and purposeful attempt at providing some sort of closure in the cinematic form — for both Sciamma’s sake and her own audience.

Still Courtesy – Elevation Pictures
Petite Maman screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations program. Mubi will release the film in the UK this November.

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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