Advertisement - Content continues below
Film

Petite Maman review: ‘Things get a little weird’

Petite Maman is a great film to see says Graeme Virtue

In the week that blockbuster sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife attempts to create a connection between generations with some supernatural help, here is an understated French film on a similar theme. Petite Maman may not be an actual ghost story but there is definitely something étrange going on in its bucolic neighbourhood. The result is a mysterious but deeply moving meditation on mother-daughter relationships.  

It is all filtered through eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a thoughtful young girl going through her first experience of bereavement after the recent passing of her grandmother. This loss has also unmoored Nelly’s mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), particularly after returning to the rural house she grew up in to have one last big clearout. 

For Nelly, her grandmother’s old-fashioned home and the rustic woods surrounding it are an instant playground, a place to mess around with some of her mum’s old toys and explore the undergrowth for pleasing pebbles. For her maman, it is a house overflowing with memories. She introduces Nelly to the bobbing branch that used to make her imagine shadow creatures lurking at the foot of her bed on dark nights. This rush of reminiscence ends up all being just a little too much for Marion and she departs, leaving her husband – an easygoing, beardy hipster played by Stéphane Varupenne – to complete the tidying up while keeping half an eye on Nelly. (In one particularly Gallic vignette, Dad gravely requests permission from his pensive daughter to enjoy an after-dinner cigarette out the kitchen window.) 

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.

Then things get a little weird. Nelly meets a new playmate in the woods, a young girl who could be her mirror image (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s real-life twin). The two strike up an instant rapport, constructing a secret gang hut from saplings and string. Their physical resemblance is not the only instance of uncanny twinning; when Nelly’s new friend invites her home for a play date, it is essentially her grandmother’s house revisited. 

By this stage, even those who have fallen behind on their Duolingo language-learning app might have roughly translated the title and have an inkling as to what is going on. But rather than try to conjure up an explanation for the warp in space-time required to create these impossibly overlapping lives, Petite Maman seems more interested in exploring the emotional possibilities. 

This is writer/director Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her poised period drama about the highly charged relationship between two women in 18th-century Brittany: one an Italian countess, the other a hired companion with a secret agenda. To go from that intense story to something so contemporary starring a pair of kids might seem like a major gear change. But Sciamma has previously coaxed wonderful performances from child actors in her films Tomboy (2011) and Water Lilies (2007). Here, the Sanz sisters are terrific. Their performances toggle from philosophically self-serious to plausibly goofy, all while seeming spontaneous. 

Advertisement - Content continues below
Advertisement - Content continues below

With only a handful of actors and a key location that is being systematically emptied of clutter there is a certain sparseness to the film. If this was partly caused by filming under Covid protocols, it has been elegantly folded into Sciamma’s vision. Despite being so earthy and grounded, it gives her film a sense of being slightly disconnected from reality. Petite Maman has the feeling of a beautifully composed modern fairy tale, complete with enchanted forest.

Petite Maman is in cinemas from November 19 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Advertisement - Content continues below

Support The Big Issue and our vendors this Christmas

Every time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, subscribe or donate, you are helping our vendors to work their way out of poverty by providing 'a hand up not a hand out.' You’re helping Big Issue vendors achieve their #BigWish

Recommended for you

Read All
It's A Wonderful Life became a life-saving guardian angel for star Karolyn Grimes
Christmas

It's A Wonderful Life became a life-saving guardian angel for star Karolyn Grimes

Inside the Climate Crisis Film Festival
Climate Crisis

Inside the Climate Crisis Film Festival

House of Gucci review: A decadent parade of high camp and dodgy accents
Film review

House of Gucci review: A decadent parade of high camp and dodgy accents

Matt Haig on A Boy Called Christmas and how to look after your mental health this festive season
Film

Matt Haig on A Boy Called Christmas and how to look after your mental health this festive season

Most Popular

Read All
Simon Le Bon: 'I’m very lucky. Solo artists have nobody to tell them they’re being an arsehole'
1.

Simon Le Bon: 'I’m very lucky. Solo artists have nobody to tell them they’re being an arsehole'

The six best things that happened at Stormzy’s Christmas party for the kids of Croydon
2.

The six best things that happened at Stormzy’s Christmas party for the kids of Croydon

The innovative 'nap pads' that could save the lives of homeless people
3.

The innovative 'nap pads' that could save the lives of homeless people

Michael Sheen: 'I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor'
4.

Michael Sheen: 'I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor'

With temperatures dropping and fewer shoppers on the high street, our vendors need you now more than ever. Buy, subscribe or donate.