Review: French Filmmaker Céline Sciamma Returns with Petite Maman, a Moving Portrait of Motherhood and Grief

French filmmaker Celine Sciamma had her work cut out for her in following up her own masterpiece; 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the most sensual, romantic and heartbreaking films of recent memory (not to mention gorgeous to look at, rich in jewel tones and period costumes). To her credit, Sciamma doesn’t try to one-up herself with Petite Maman, a small-scale (but not small in heart) production about mothers, daughters, grief and love. Instead, she ably and beautifully shifts her focus to something entirely different but equally as moving.

Set in the present day, Petite Maman follows young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who’s just lost her maternal grandmother. She accompanies her parents, known only as Mom and Dad (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne, respectively), to the grandmother’s house where they’ll go about the business of sifting through belongings, memories and the minutia of daily life to close up the now empty home and begin the process of moving on. Little Nelly is a bit at sea with it all, aware of the somber nature of the proceedings but not entirely sure how to be there for a mother who’s clearly grieving and distant.

Sciamma injects a captivating magic into the proceedings as Nelly goes out to explore the woods around the house where her mother grew up; there, she meets Marion (Joséphine’s real-life twin sister, Gabrielle), a girl seemingly out of another era but nevertheless strikingly familiar. The two young actors are endlessly engaging, their gentle, fragile emotions alighting their shared facial features with subtlety and sincerity. At just 72 minutes long, Petite Maman still manages to create an unmistakable sense of warmth and understanding, quietly asserting itself as an insightful exploration of the unique relationships between mothers and daughters.

Petite Maman is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone