Throughout the centuries philosophers have responded to the idea of death in many ways. Kierkegaard saw grief as a door to faith while Heidegger found it a way to give deeper meaning to one’s life. It was Camus who found the absurdity in it all.
As adults, grief exists as an emotional conglomerate and people from all walks of life deal with it in different manners. As a child, to experience a real loss at such an early age, can shape how we see the world and perhaps, will build on who we will become.
Director Céline Sciamma’s beautiful new film “Petite Maman” is a subtle and touching piece that transcends time.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is an eight-year-old girl has lost her grandmother. While with her mother (Nina Meurisse), as she cleans out her grandmother’s house Nelly strolls into the woods near the house. She meets another eight-year-old girl named Marion (played by Sanz’s twin sister Gabrielle) who is busy building a hut, as Nelly’s mother did when she was a little girl.
The bond the two young girls establish is very real and honest and communicate and play like little girls do. Sleepovers, pancakes, and fun games in the woods ensue. But what is real and what reflects the past and the present?
Who Marion seems to be and the profundity of her existence regarding Nelly’s first real-world grief is deeply and incredibly moving.
Sciamma’s screenplay is enchanting and tender. The film is only seventy-two minutes long but the pathos that exist within it speak volumes.
The director uses no music, until an abrupt “needle-drop” that begins an important sequence. While composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier eventually has a moment to add a brief moment of music, Sciamma brilliantly uses sound design, a quiet and atmospheric tone that emphasizes the closeness of the two girls.
The cinematography of Claire Mathon (“My King,” “Stranger by the Lake”) captures not only the splendor of the woods and the countryside but the spirit of Nelly and Marion. By keeping the camera focused on the two girls the film strikes a balance in Nelly’s youthful curiosity and her awakening to the meaning of loss.
As she did with 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (a film I believe to be the best of its decade), Sciamma has gotten to the core of human emotion through the relationship of two beings who come together at a time when life wills it.
“Petite Maman” is a treasure, Sciamma has crafted a piece that is affecting. At first, the scope may seem narrow, but the film’s value is in its simplicity. This is the world of loss and memories seen through the eyes of a child, but they aren’t child-like. The themes of life and death are handled with a light touch and philosophy.
The film takes place in fall, a time of change and for young Nelly change does come. Kids will relate, here what matters is how much of your childhood is still preserved in you.