French director Céline Sciamma‘s Petite Maman (2021) is a curious and beguiling film. After her grandmother passes away, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) visits her mother’s (Nina Meurisse) childhood home. When the process of clearing the house becomes too difficult for her mother, she abruptly leaves. Remaining with her father (Stéphane Varupenne), Nelly befriends Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her own age, in the forest where her mother used to play as a child.
Petite Maman is a sensitive whisper of a film whose 73 minutes pass by in the blink of an eye. Its narrative sparseness is similar to Sciamma’s previous film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), about painter Marianne (Noémie Marlant) and her subject Héloïse, whose portrait is being painted for a potential suitor (Adèle Haenel). Each film chooses to focus on characters that create a space for themselves, a place of belonging by discovering a connection with a kindred spirit. Showing her playful nature, the director explores the fantastical and compelling idea, what if we could meet our parents as children?
In this short conversation with PopMatters, Sciamma discusses her interest in the architecture of cinema, and she encourages her audience to remember their childhood bodies.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman are both about fleeting but transformative moments. The distinct contrast in these two thematically connected films is one set of characters belongs to the adult realm of sensual pleasures, while the others belong to the platonic realm, driven by imagination and childlike innocence.
There’s definitely a connection because I see the films as holding hands, and it’s an idea I had while I was working on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I was tempted to go with this cute and more peaceful narrative [laughs], but I used it as an idea for the future, of where I would land afterward.
Petite Maman benefited a lot from what I learned from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and also from the confidence I was given by the response to those ideas. The simple and common point is that it’s a week between two characters who get to know one another. My films are always about the crux of the moment, of transformation or growth for characters who meet and love one another, and Tomboy  was about that.
Equality is the connection between Portrait and Petite Maman. With [Portrait of a Lady on Fire] I was trying to write a love story about equality, and Petite Maman is a mother-daughter relationship with equality. It’s something that can’t happen, and so it’s about solving this and giving [the characters] the opportunity to look at each other from the same height.
I wanted them and the audience to feel they’re meeting at exactly the same age, and that’s how we found this new equilibrium. This is what links the two films. It came from a political idea of a narrative that places you in the form of a utopia.
Your brevity of style, the economical framing with few edits, allows the audience to hone in on the words, expressions, and emotions of the characters. For any director, the challenge is knowing how to balance style and simplicity.
It’s about finding a global vibe rather than local ideas. There’s always a scene where you’re thinking, ‘This is a long tracking shot.’ You have local ambitions, but it’s about building the language and the grammar of the film as a whole. It’s something you write and you craft with your director of photography and crew, and then it’s something you craft with your actors. It’s about how you’re going to create the language together, which means the rhythm of the body moving into space, and how speech rises.
Personally, it’s about making the film fluid and making it look modest. Petite Maman was shot in studios. It’s very accurate and I’ve never in my life had that much lighting on set. There was this big console where we could mix the light. Studio shooting is crazy, it’s like the origin of cinema in its most economic and contemporary form.
In regards to the lighting, when I spoke with Claire Mathon, my director of photography, it was about bringing continuity and making it fluid. It was going to be beautiful, but it was going to feel like a time-travelling film, and the light was in charge of the continuity of time, rather than the contrast.
It’s about building this grammar patiently and then when it becomes symphonic, it becomes a symphony of ideas, which feels obvious. That’s the magic of cinema [laughs].
Petite Maman reveals its mischievous side and, as you say, it embraces cinema as a medium of ideas. It asks its audience to forget what’s possible, foregoing the analytical adult mind and embracing the imagination of a child.
I wanted to give the audience their “childhood body” back because I find it revolting that we culturally admit that childhood belongs to the past. It’s as if we’re dead, and looking at pictures of ourselves as kids thinking, ‘I’m not this person.’ It’s about reuniting ourselves with who we are, a person who has been living and growing, and who continues to, instead of making it about this moment in the past when we were allowed to have emotions and questions.
It’s about giving us back our full bodies. We keep ageing and for me, childhood is not something from the past. It is because I live in this world. But we’re lacking in respect for the kids we were, and it’s organised so that we can disconnect from that. Petite Maman is about this, and a about a kid saying to their parents, “You were kids, what’s happening? Who are you, and how come I don’t know who you were? It also means I don’t know who you are.”
As we shouldn’t forget our past selves, the filmmaker shouldn’t forget their previous films. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman in mind, is the art of storytelling condensing the past, present, and future?
I see the art of storytelling as architecture around time. Cinema is the architecture of desires for character and the architecture of time for the viewer. It’s what I’m most obsessed with. This film was the easiest to edit, and it’s a film that relies on editing because the magic is in the cut.
Petite Maman is edited as it was written and that doesn’t give you a good reputation as a filmmaker. My films are edited by sticking to the script, not because I want to stick to it, but because it works. The idea that you shoot your film and then you “find” it in the editing room, some films need that and they’re crafted like that. For me that’s a trick. The editing is still about writing the film you’ve been writing.