So much stands between a child knowing their parent, between a parent knowing their child. The relationship is fraught with obligation and underserved by language; time, experience, and the duty of raising a child (and the duty of being raised) complicate channels of communication already burdened by incongruent vocabularies. How can a mother tell her daughter how her grief feels? How can a daughter tell her mother that she is grieving, too?
When Marion (Nina Meurisse), the 31-year-old mother of eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) in Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, leaves in the night without telling her daughter, you can hardly blame her. Marion has just lost her own mother, and she’s taken Nelly and her husband (Stéphane Varupenne) to help account for her mother’s cottage in a remote hamlet in France. The experience proves to be a lot to take. As if cleaning out your childhood home wasn’t loaded enough, there’s something especially eerie about the house: the walls are plastered with yellowed, peeling paper; white sheets hang from furniture like kids dressed as ghosts. Marion is a good and kind mother, even through such a painful process. But her grief is unrelenting, and she makes her exit once Nelly is asleep for the night. When Nelly wakes the next morning, it’s up to her father to tell her that Marion has left and that he and Nelly will have to finish tidying up the house on their own.
Petite Maman is a fantasy movie that takes place somewhere between the borders of a child’s experience and her imagination. Before Marion leaves, she puts Nelly to sleep (in the same bed she slept as a child herself) with a game she used to play while lying awake at night. She instructs Nelly to look, once her eyes get used to the dark, for a panther at the foot of her bed, to watch it move and listen to its purr. It’s a simple trick to tire out a busy mind, but as the camera lingers on the shadows swimming on Nelly’s blankets, you begin to wonder whether that panther might really materialize. Through Nelly’s perspective, it feels entirely possible—why should a mystical cat be any less real or strange than the death of your grandmother? Petite Maman’s fantasy is borne between history and possibility, its magic charged with the power of an object just out of reach.
Nelly is not a lonely child as much as someone who’s used to being alone. She doesn’t complain about her mother’s departure, but the question of why her mother left—and why she left without saying goodbye—hangs thick in the air as Nelly explores her grandmother’s house and keeps busy with games made for one. Nelly is resilient, but you can’t help but wish she had someone to sort through these long days and complicated feelings with her. It’s a relief when, after chasing an errant ball into the woods, Nelly comes upon another girl her age. There’s something preternaturally familiar about this girl, played by Joséphine’s real-life sister Gabrielle Sanz, who shares Nelly’s thick, frizzy hair and cozy wool sweaters. And, of course, there’s her name: Marion, the same as Nelly’s mother.
Petite Maman is not precious about its twist (even in its title, which translates to Little Mother). But as evidence mounts that this new Marion is in fact, Nelly’s mother, somehow present now as a child, Nelly is hesitant to acknowledge what’s going on, as if a spell has been cast that can only be broken by speaking its name. So much of our ideas of who our parents are and who they might have been is a construction. We draw pictures from constellations of stories and family photos, of jokes and anecdotes and secrets. But our knowledge of our mothers and fathers is tethered to their identities as our guardians and origins (and how well or poorly they fulfilled those roles). Being able to see and hear and touch her mother as a peer, unburdened by the pretext of actually being her capital-M Mother, is a transcendent privilege, one that isn’t lost on Nelly. She’s right to be delicate around the gift.
Child Marion acts more as a companion within Nelly’s loneliness than a solution for it. Both girls have a knack for taking care of themselves: They cook each other meals, they modify games meant for four to play with two, they role-play as detectives with the wit of a David Lean script. That a mother and her daughter should both weather lonely childhoods isn’t a great surprise; it’s probably less likely that one should enjoy a lush social life and the other routines of solitude. But language only holds so much power, especially between a parent and child so tightly bound to their respective roles. To tell a child that you were a lonely kid, too, is one thing; to exist as that lonely kid beside them is another.
When Nelly finally decides to tell Child Marion that she is, somehow, her daughter, it’s out of a sense of duty. Nelly follows Child Marion to her home and meets the young version of her since-passed grandmother (Margot Abascal), who walks with a cane. We learn that Marion is scheduled to have an operation so “she doesn’t end up with her mother’s problems,” and it’s here that the power of Petite Maman’s fantasy starts to bloom. This glimpse into her mother’s childhood grants Nelly the vantage to see pain trickle through generations, both literally (her grandmother’s disability) and more broadly (days spent in the woods without a friend). Nelly is a sensitive and observant child, and while she’s certainly aware of how incredible it is to have a friend in the eight-year-old version of her mother, it becomes clear that this is likely affecting Marion, too. She decides it’s time to come clean.
“I have a secret,” Nelly says. “It’s our secret.” Any movie that implicates time travel is bound to fly with Back to the Future–esque trivia in its orbit, but mercifully, Petite Maman concerns itself more with poetry than logistics. After taking a beat, Marion asks Nelly whether she’s from the future. “I come from the path behind you,” Nelly responds.
Feeling as if you don’t (or can’t) know your parents is frustrating, in part because it’s as if a map to your own life is being kept behind a curtain. Despite our best wishes, it’s inevitable that some of our parents’ coding displays itself in our own lives and behaviors. To know that some version of yourself has already gone through a whole life, has already weathered success and failure and love and grief, is as intoxicating as it is mortifying. That any insight gained from these experiences must be filtered through a lens as psychologically loaded as a parent-child relationship is enough to drive one up a wall. Petite Maman’s power springs from its decision to remove that filter. Speaking with her mother as a peer instead of, well, her mother, Nelly learns things she might have otherwise never known: that her mother used to spit her soup back into a bowl, that she dreamed of one day becoming an actress, that, even as a child, she was already thinking of Nelly. It’s a kind of gift so idyllic that many wouldn’t even think to wish for it.
Wish fulfillment gets a bad rap in film, so often relegated to cheap fan service and half-baked political ideals more patronizing than they are helpful. But Petite Maman makes a case for the utility of the utopic. Early in the film, Nelly tells Adult Marion that she’s worried she didn’t give her grandmother a proper goodbye before she passed. Marion’s response is telling: Instead of reassuring Nelly that yes, of course she did, that her grandmother loved her and knew Nelly loved her, too, she asks Nelly how she might have wanted to say goodbye if she had it her way. Nelly thinks for a moment, then hugs Marion, both as an answer and an act of gratitude. The exchange proves to be a bigger relief than any verbal reassurance could be; whether her grandmother knows it or not, Nelly’s rites of grief have been performed. Those rites are echoed when Nelly and Child Marion see Marion’s mother off for an operation: Nelly offers her grandmother the same hug she’d offered her mother, both acts with firm footing in tribute and grief. That Petite Maman’s fantasy draws questions of whether that goodbye was real is inconsequential: Nelly gains closure through the interaction, material or not.
Petite Maman is a lean 72 minutes and takes care not to waste a word. In a script full of devastatingly powerful one-liners, though, a particular scene stands out. Toward the end of their time together, Nelly admits to Child Marion that she’s aware of her mother’s melancholy, that she worries that, having been born when Marion was only 23, she might be the source of some of Marion’s grief. Child Marion responds with a prescience that eludes most adult parents. “You didn’t invent my sadness,” she says. It’s a turn toward the metaphysical that recalls Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s “Meet me in Montauk,” a fantasy that suggests love supersedes circumstance. This sort of make-believe extends beyond idle navel-gazing; it offers its subjects the opportunity to heal, which, when sitting with grief, can feel like a miracle.
Like all daydreams, Petite Maman’s fantasy eventually finds its end. Child Marion is carted off to surgery; Adult Marion returns to collect her husband and child from her late mother’s home. The movie never confirms whether Nelly’s time with Child Marion was reality or a dream, but the answer is immaterial. When Adult Marion returns, Nelly’s response is small but pointed: she calls her mother by her name, Marion, and collapses into her arms. Marion is endeared, if not a little surprised, but responds knowingly. “Nelly,” she says, returning both her daughter’s call and embrace. Marion’s absence created a space for Nelly to dream, and the results of those fantasies are every bit as real as any conversation between parent and child might have been.