Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman has a map of the sensory memories of childhood where the landmarks include dishes and wallpaper and piles of sticks, and the terrain is cloth. Blankets have fuzz buildups older than the child snuggled under them, worn sheets have floral patterns to trace with a finger. Maybe these still live as rags but more likely they’re buried and become dirt or tucked away in the backs of forgotten closets, waiting to be thrown out after the death of someone you loved very much.
Such are the blankets and things of Nelly’s grandmother, recently deceased, and Nelly accompanies her father and mother as they clean out the home. Nelly, a very serious child, regrets not saying goodbye in just the right way to her grandmother, something she confides to her mother. Grandma is the one out of reach, but even though she’s attentive and loving Mom seems just as unknowable, an absence waiting to happen. Mom and Dad’s relationship seems rocky and Nelly wakes up to find Mom absent. Nelly spends the day playing in the woods and meeting the neighbor girl, but she doesn’t return the same way.
To say more would step on a slight, perfect little movie, one that sneaks up with its most heart-wrenching moments and lines. A film that moves as easily from scene to scene as verse, that has you looking back minutes or hours after watching it, ready to catch you as you collapse into its arms.
There’s a hidden-in-plain-sight hook to the movie that must remain a unknown ahead of time if possible. The official description (on Letterboxd and imdb) pointedly reveals nothing. Reviews invariably fawn over its 72-minute running time like they’re cradling a piece of doll furniture but only some, Manohla Dargis and David Frear for example, see reason to talk around its plot (Anthony Lane doesn’t make it through a paragraph without blurting it out).
It’s admittedly a plot point that comes early, more the conceit of the movie rather than a game-changing twist. And this is definitely not to suggest the movie wouldn’t be worthwhile going in with extra information. But I feel knowing more would create expectations of what it looks like, and distract from the way Sciamma lets the story unfold and breath in just the right amount of space. Maybe the movie sets off a parental instinct, a desire to protect the something precious, even while I know it’s strong enough to carry on its own.
Petite Maman opens in theaters this weekend.