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A Nice Surprise: Céline Sciamma on Petite Maman

Having already established herself as one of the most intriguing new voices in the French filmmaking industry with her first three features, the coming-of-age triumvirate of “Water Lillies” (2007), “Tomboy” (2011) and “Girlhood” (2014), Céline Sciamma made her big international breakthrough in 2019 with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a period drama about the relationship between a female artist (Noemie Merlant) and the young woman (Adele Haenel) whose wedding portrait she has been commissioned to paint. A beautifully etched romance and a fascinating examination of the female artistic gaze, the film earned Sciamma the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, and was celebrated throughout the world. Sciamma became a filmmaker whose next moves would no doubt be followed keenly by cinephiles all over the world. 

Therefore, it came as a shock to many when the Berlin International Film Festival announced the lineup for its 2021 edition and one of the competition titles was “Petite Maman,” a new work Sciamma made under pandemic conditions without anyone knowing. That accomplishment alone would have been impressive enough, but on top of that the resulting film is a truly extraordinary film and arguably her finest, most moving work to date. In it, an eight-year-old girl named Nelly (Josephine Sanz) travels with her parents to help clean out the house that belonged to her recently deceased maternal grandmother, though the combination of grief and martial tensions cause her mother to take off after a couple of days. While playing out back in the same woods where her mother played as a child, Nelly comes across another girl about her age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and the two strike up an instant friendship that grows more complex when Nelly finally realizes that Marion is actually her own mother from back when she was eight. “Petite Maman” is an examination of parent-child relationships and the beguiling and profound ways people come to terms with loss.

Like its predecessors, “Petite Maman” was a hit on last year’s international festival circuit and landed on a number of Top 10 lists as well, including the number #9 slot on the list compiled by the critics at this site. (I had it at #3 on my own individual list.) This week, it finally goes into general release in America. I was able to talk with Sciamma (who also co-wrote the screenplay for another current release, Jacques Audiard’s charming and sexy “Paris, 13th District”) about "Petite Maman," the challenges of making a film revolving around the performances of a couple of non-professional children, and the influence of a certain Tom Hanks classic on the project.

When “Petite Maman” made its world premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, its inclusion in the lineup came as a surprise to most people, largely because until that point, hardly anyone knew that you had even commenced on a follow-up project to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” let alone that you had completed it. Was this something that you had been working on before doing “Portrait”?

Yes. The idea had kind of hit me when I was in the process of writing “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which was around 2017, and there was a period where I was kind of struggling with it and almost gave up on it several times. This idea came up, this idea that was very warm and easy to write about a young girl and her mother hanging out at the same age, to the point where I began to think that I should write this right now. I didn’t intend to do it as fast, I must say. I wanted to write it because in March of 2020, it had been in my head for a couple of years and I wanted to give it a shot. I thought I would shoot it in a year and a half but then the pandemic happened and suddenly, what the film was dealing with—the loss of elders and the goodbyes that couldn’t get made—was something that we were all going through and it felt more urgent. It was this timeless story I thought could do whenever I wanted that now felt very contemporary. It also felt important to make films so that when the cinemas reopened, there were images that were aware of what we had been going through. We also chose to support the festivals, even though they were virtual, and participate in that moment when the cinemas reopened, even if the people still weren’t there yet.

It must have also been a help to you as well in an odd way. Under normal circumstances, a follow-up project to a big breakthrough like “Portrait” would have been under great scrutiny from the moment it was announced.

Exactly. It also helps knowing that people will be excited by the surprise. It felt warm to be thinking that it would seem like a nice surprise.

Were there any films or filmmakers that you were looking at for inspiration in telling this story?

At first, I was thinking that this should really be an animated film when the idea hit me. I thought a lot about Miyazaki—the treatment of nature and the idea of the house in the woods really linked to his work. I was also thinking about the pioneers of cinema. I felt that I was going to do a film using the exact same tools—doing everything in the camera with the magic in the editing. It was magic realism, which was one of the early genres of cinema. I was also thinking about Penny Marshall’s “Big.” Of course, “Back to the Future” is the matrix for any time-traveling film, especially if you were born in the Seventies like me, but I was thinking more about the boldness and innovative radical nature of “Big.” It isn’t a film about a kid going to see his parents as kids—it is about a kid falling in love with a woman. The last shot of that film, when you think about it, is incredible. I remember how it was both very fun and very troubling for a kid when I saw it in the cinema. I remember that I felt really respected as a kid watching that film and I wanted to give that same feeling to the kids from 2020.

You don’t over-explain things for the audience. In the hands of a number of other filmmakers, the time-travel concept would have been explained in great detail but here, it just happens and that is it.

When I wrote the film, I was almost disappointed that it was a time-travel film because I didn’t want to go through that whole process of having to come back or the actual consequences of going back and changing the future. If the film just decides to be its own time-traveling machine to create a common space in time between characters, then you just write them the same in the language of the film, which means that they are going to believe in each other and not ask a lot of questions. If the characters do not ask a lot of questions, then the film doesn’t have to deal with those questions. Then, the only question about the future that you have to ask are about the music and I think that is a great question about the future—it is certainly my question too.

In the roles of Nelly and the child version of her mother, you cast Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz, two sisters who are both quite young and who had never acted before. Were you consciously looking for sisters to play the roles? Did their youth and lack of film experience require you to employ a different directorial approach than you had utilized in your previous projects?

There was an idea that I had in the casting that I wanted to work with sisters and we put out an ad saying that we were looking for sisters. My casting director met with something like 10 kids and when I met them, I knew I wanted to work with them. This meant that I didn’t rehearse before shooting. They had never been on a set. For me, it was really the same job as with adults or with kids who are professionals. We always romanticize what it is like to direct a scene but that is mostly where to put the camera and what kind of moves to make. It is quite simple to explain to a kid—you never feel weird explaining to a kid “Okay, you are going to play this ..." because they are always playing and they are used to it. You watch them learn and you watch them become autonomous for the first time in their lives. After two days, it just becomes this job that we do together in inventing the language of the film. This always takes a few days, whether you are doing it with Adèle Haenel or Josephine Sanz. It is all about finding the rhythm of how you walk and move and then adapting.

Over the last year, “Petite Maman” was one of a number of films made by women that scored big on the international festival circuit. Do you think all of this acclaim suggests that things are changing for the better for women filmmakers, both in general and in France specifically, or does the fact that only three women made the cut for the competitive Cannes lineup this year suggest otherwise?

The difference now, what it tells, is that we can now count on international solidarity and international looks at our work so that we are not dependent only on French critics and audiences. This attention might help create different things but otherwise, the figures are quite steady. We keep forgetting that every ten years or so, there is a new wave—I have been part of three waves already and I am only 43. What it tells is the constance and permanence of how important women filmmakers voices are in French cinema. French women basically invented fiction cinema. It should help get back the continuity of our story and filmography. Films are also more accessible, so now we find these films that might not otherwise be shown. I hope we can get the whole story instead of just being a wave. There are waves all the time. It is a good thing that now, it is harder not to notice. If we disappear, it will be noticed.

"Petite Maman" will be available in theaters on April 22nd.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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