“Petite Maman” opens in the wake of a death: that of 8-year-old Nelly’s grandmother, at whose house in the country this French film is set. In an early scene, Nelly (a marvelously confident and prepossessing Joséphine Sanz) tells her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), that she’s sad; the girl feels like she didn’t get a chance to properly say goodbye. Over the course of this enchanted, even magical little tale, barely longer than an hour, she will, in a way.
But she also gets a chance to say hello – to someone else whose appearance is far more surprising, meaningful, mysterious and poetic. After the brief prologue, set at the old-age home where the grandmother spent her final days, Nelly, Marion and Nelly’s unnamed father (Stéphane Varupenne) gather to clean out the country house where Marion grew up.
Marion, perhaps overwhelmed by emotion, leaves Nelly and her father alone. As the father organizes the house’s contents into boxes, Nelly wanders the nearby woods, where she soon befriends another 8-year-old living in a house that appears to be a mirror image of her grandmother’s. The new girl, played by Joséphine’s twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz, is also named, coincidentally or not, Marion.
Both young actresses, making their film debut, are little miracles: curious and precise, with the soul connection of twins. It is difficult to know how much more or how little to say about the precise details of “Petite Maman,” whose French title, for those who haven’t figured it out, is best left untranslated. But the friendship between these two children, who discover other strange coincidences that give the story an air of magical realism, can be read on two levels.
The two levels are as the interpretation of a child’s reality, seen through a lens that may occasionally distort meaning, or as a fairy-tale-like fable, charmed and more than slightly beguiling, in the sense of deception. Writer-director Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) has crafted a clever, deeply moving and emotionally resonant exploration of intergenerational connection and loss, with moments of startling insight spilling, as it were, out of the mouths of babes.
“You didn’t invent my sadness,” Little Marion tells Nelly, as if to reassure her, during a conversation in which Nelly admits that her mother, Big Marion, seems unhappy. “Petite Maman” is what every film should be: powerfully, even arrestingly, original; grounded in emotional truth; hyper-specific; deeply universal; strange; mesmerizing; and not a minute longer than necessary. It is, in short, a small wonder.
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