WHO WAS YOUR mother when she was a child? And would you have played with her, if you had met her when you both were eight years old? These ideas are, admittedly head-spinners all of their own. Without sensationalist hi-jinks, Céline Sciamma’s beautiful film, Petite Maman explores the liquid nature of time in a way that touches on the texture of childhood and the smell of memories. It’s another unequivocal best in this year’s European Film Festival which, designed to be hybrid, offers limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, until 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.
Nelly (Josephine Sanz) is a little girl. She’s candid and sharp, warm and direct, and when her maternal granny passes away, the whole world shifts on its axis for her. In the old aged home, in her parents’ embrace, and in the passage of memory that she confronts, in her mother’s childhood home, where she has never been before.
And it is there, where she encounters the magic square of four trees in her mother’s childhood backyard. It’s a place where her mother played, as a little girl. Without the crudeness of the notion of the “upside-down”, in Netflix’s Stranger Things, or the slapstick humour in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film Back to the Future, the nature of time and the shimmer of the mirror play with your thinking. The idea and the charming resonance of this film is made whole by the astonishing presence of Sanz and her twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz. But more than two little girls doing little girls’ things together, from playing board games to dressing up and messily making pancakes, they represent a masterclass in film directorial savvy. Underplayed and deep, these performers offer an understanding of the underbelly of what it means to be a child, but also of how rich and profound childhood perceptions of adult flaws are.
The work in entirety reflects an exquisite understanding of colour and of how memories intertwine with life and the special sphere of a personal universe in which you find yourself in this world. No one is identical. And your memory must have holes in it. Always. If you met your mother when she was a child, and you were, too, would you have read her differently to how you understood her as an adult? More than a film telling a story, this is a work of poetry criss-crossed with autumn hues from an eight-year-old’s depth of focus. Something to imbibe with your full heart.
- Petite Maman is directed by Céline Sciamma and features a cast headed by Margot Abascal, Florès Cardo, Nina Meurisse, Guylène Péan, Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine Sanz, Josée Schuller and Stéphane Varupenne. Written by Céline Sciamma, it is produced by Bénédicte Couvreur and features creative input by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (music) Claire Mathon (cinematography), Julien Lacheray (editing), Christel Baras (casting), Lionel Brison (production design) and Céline Sciamma (costumes). In French with English subtitles, it is part of the 9th European Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, until 23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.