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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Express @ Berlinale: Portrait of a mother as a little girl

Celine Sciamma’s ‘Petit Maman’ was screened during the virtual edition of the Berlin Film Festival.

Written by Shubhra Gupta
New Delhi | March 5, 2021 1:04:36 pm
Petit MamanCeline Sciamma’s ‘Petit Maman’ makes us believe in its premise, which is entirely make-believe.

Celine Sciamma’s ‘Petit Maman’ is a magical mystery tour, winding its way through a thicket of memories and dreams. What would happen if you met your mother when she was herself a child as old as you? Riding on a little girl’s imagination, amongst the strongest, strangest thing in the world, Sciamma’s film makes us believe in its premise which is entirely make-believe.

Nelly (Josephine Sanz) and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), are heading to the countryside from a nursing home. Nelly’s grandmother has just passed away. The dead woman’s cottage, where Nelly’s mother evidently spent much of her childhood, needs to be cleaned out. Nelly wakes up the next morning to discover her mum has taken off, leaving her affable dad (Stephane Varupenne) in charge. Where has she gone? Why has she gone?

A remarkably composed Nelly, not very shaken by her mum’s unexpected departure, soon comes across a near-identical girl. The girl’s name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and she lives in a cottage which is a mirror image of the one Nelly is in. You could mistake one girl for the other, except Marion’s brown hair is held back by a band, while Nelly’s is left open. In almost every other aspect, they are amazingly alike: watch them speak, giggle, share jaw-dropping secrets. Nelly tells Marion that she, Marion, is her mother, and Marion accepts it as the most natural thing in the world, and we are left enthralled. You come from the future, asks Marion, her tone more statement than question. I come from the path behind you, says Nelly.

Sciamma’s films take us deep into the female psyche with startling surety, in a way very few contemporary filmmakers do. There’s a delicacy with which she builds up telling details: Nelly is a single child and quite capable of amusing herself, and at times she appears stronger than her sad, grieving mother. We see this in their exchanges, and in the way the little girl appears to give the mother solace, when it’s usually the other way around.

You can read as much or as little meaning into this beguiling fairytale, depending upon your own experience of childhood, and your relationship with your mother (Nelly’s father stays in the background). The cottage has a Grimms’ feel to it, but two little red riding hoods do not encounter a wolf, just an elderly woman with a walking stick; and the makeshift treehouse of Nelly’s mother’s childhood may remind you of the stories you loved reading on your own.

What’s remarkable is just how much the little girls are proper persons in their own right, not precious, cutesy creatures. The camera is always at their level; they are never dwarfed by adults looking down on them. Even when they giggle, they are just cracking up at their own silliness. It’s just such a delicious girly thing. And when they get serious, they blow a hole in time, which, as every imaginative human knows, is a plangent thing, you can travel up and down, over and under, the past, present and future. And anything is possible.

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