Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” runs a mere 72 minutes and yet packs in a lifetime of enchantment. It is, she says, “a pocket film you can take home.”
The film, which opened in theaters Friday, is the French writer-director’s follow-up to her 2019 award-winning love story “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Whereas that film took a specific 18th period setting, “Petite Maman” is more contemporary yet still out of time.
It’s told largely from the perspective of 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose grandmother has just died. While her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), wrestles with grief and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) cleans out her grandmother’s house, Nelly is left to explore her surroundings. In the woods behind the house, she meets a girl who looks exactly like her (played by Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle). With the gentle spell of a fairy tale, it becomes clear that this is Nelly’s mother as a child. Where did she come from? “From the path behind you,” she answers.
“It’s short to watch but it’s not short to live,” Sciamma said smiling in a recent interview over Zoom from her apartment in Paris.
On a spring afternoon with light pouring through the windows, Sciamma reflected on “Petite Maman,” her fifth and in some ways most personal film, one set in the Paris suburb Sciamma grew up in, Cergy-Pontoise.
AP: There isn’t a lot that “Petite Maman” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” have in common, but they’re both centered on two characters who connect outside of daily life, free of the baggage of their roles, whether its mother and daughter, or artist and subject.
SCIAMMA: My films have kind of always had the same structure. It’s always about one character exploring the world. It’s a few days out of society. It can happen because you’re on an island. It can happen because you’re on a holiday. It can happen because you just moved somewhere. It can happen because you’re traveling in time. It’s a moment, an opportunity to transform. Now, I see film even more as an opportunity to transform myself, and to transform the people watching.
AP: Your films seem to pull out not just tropes but traditional frameworks of conflict. There’s still the possibility of wonder and change, but it’s not happening through a clash. Is that conscious?
SCIAMMA: Yes, because it’s very counterintuitive to get rid of formal conflict. Especially with a story like that where there’s natural conflict because of this time paradox. “Petite Maman” is a timeless film. We don’t know when it’s set. There’s no time traveling machine. It’s a high concept, meeting your parents as a kid. It’s like a mythology. You can explore it. It’s not that conflict is unfolding and I’m censoring it. It feels like avoiding it makes me work more, think more, explore more. It comes quite naturally now, I must say. I don’t have to fight a lot. I’m taking that road deliberately. It’s like when you know a drug will work really well.
AP: What sent you back to childhood in the first place? Was there something brewing in you that reflected back on your beginnings?
SCIAMMA: My personal question was: If I met my mother as a kid, would she be my sister? That’s a very particular question. I tried to expand the film around it, including in casting. The two lead performers, the mother and the daughter, are played by sisters. I decided to shoot in my hometown not because of the vibes. Of course you’re going to get the vibes. But I know this place very well. Those woods are not even really beautiful. We came up with a lot of leaves from elsewhere to get the colors we wanted. The forest is the most democratic nature you can put on screen. Not everybody knows about the sea, the beach or the mountains. But the forest. That’s why it’s the setting of most fairy tales.
AP: Were you thinking about your own relationship with your mother?
SCIAMMA: It’s very linked to my own personal life. Even the house in the film — it’s studio built — and it’s a synthesis of both my grandmother’s houses. The character of the grandmother is based on my own maternal grandmother and she wears her old clothing and stuff. It was the first time I was working with ghosts.
AP: You made this film during the pandemic. How did that inform it?
SCIAMMA: The pandemic made the film more urgent. I started writing the film just before the first lockdown in France just after I got back from the release of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” I wrote the first five scenes and then lockdown didn’t happen for two months. When I went back again and the first scene was a kid saying goodbye to several women in a nursing home. The situation that the film is looking at — somebody is emptying the house of someone they couldn’t say goodbye to — felt strongly connected. It meant the film could be needed, could be helpful.
AP: It’s an uncommonly authentic depiction of childhood. Did you find it easy to get into that frame of mind?
SCIAMMA: It’s just that I take children seriously enough to write them as they’d want to be. I don’t think I write these characters differently if they’re adults or kids. It’s about the level of curiosity. My films are always about someone gazing obsessively about things. That’s why I love to work with kids, because it’s a given. You don’t have to put in perspective why a kid would gaze so much at things. Everyone knows it’s survival. Nobody’s saying it like that, but it is. It’s a great tension for cinema.
AP: Why do you think gazing is so foundational to your films? They are often about who’s looking and how they’re seeing.
SCIAMMA: So far, that’s what I’ve been looking for. I’m really interested to go in another direction. I could be really interested in having a film with multiple characters’ point of view. I would like to try that. I’m feeling curious.
AP: Maybe it’s a masculine way of thinking but many filmmakers who try to follow up an international success like “Portrait” with something grand and expensive. You made a tender, small film in the woods of your hometown.
SCIAMMA: My definition of success is that you can do what you want, at least for a moment. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I hope everyone does that, what they really want. I actually feel less pressure. I did something I really care about and now it’s living its own life. I could retire! (laughs) But there are so many things to do.