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Dreamlike and magical: fairytale-like film a powerful debut for young sisters

FILM REVIEW Petite Maman Run time: 1h 12mins. Who: Céline Sciamma (director), Joséphine Sanz, Grabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Margo Abascal. Where: In cinemas When: From May 5 Rating: Hard to fault.

Céline Sciamma’s film Petite Maman, released in France last year, is as gorgeous and gut-wrenching as its predecessor, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Petite Maman follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz in her screen debut) as she forms an improbable bond with the child version of her mother, Marion (fellow screen debutant, Joséphine’s sister Gabrielle). They inexplicably meet in the woods of Nelly’s mother’s childhood home, following her grandmother’s death. 

On paper, Petite Maman’s premise may sound like a Brothers Grimm nightmare due to its eerie setting and unnatural elements. However, Sciamma’s expertly written script instead ensures a film in the vein of a Disney princess fairytale. 

The often-raw subject matter is treated with a care and sensitivity that refuses to ignore the complexity of the themes explored, while maintaining a sense of calmness and warmth throughout. The writer-director’s story is a masterclass in restraint, balancing tones, and show-don’t-tell filmmaking. 

Dreamlike and magical: fairytale-like film a powerful debut for young sisters

Petite Maman opens in Australian cinemas on May 5. Credit: MUBI

Cinematographer Claire Mathon reunites with Sciamma after her award-winning work on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Mathon continues her hot streak, following her most recent work on Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, one of the best-shot films of 2021. 

In Petite Maman, the cinematographer preferences dreamlike imagery and autumn colours that capture the mood of the tale. 

The Sanz sisters are impeccable, portraying an authentic sibling-like bond that is shared off-screen. Their ability to portray feelings such as grief, confusion and guilt in their restrained performances is astounding. Such themes are conveyed powerfully, reminiscent of fellow child actor Zoé Héran’s role in Sciamma’s 2011 effort Tomboy.

While Petite Maman’s most memorable scenes take place between the Sanz sisters, the film’s strong supporting cast are vital to its emotional core. Stéphane Varupenne shines as Nelly’s father, admirable as the grieving family’s rock. Margo Abascal is also stellar, lending warmth and heart as Nelly’s grandmother.

Petite Maman’s emotional effectiveness is likely to see the film remain in its audience’s subconsciousness long after its fleeting 72-minute runtime, fitting for a film that feels dreamlike. 

With a comfort film that is sure to be a favourite of serial rewatchers, Sciamma succeeds with Petite Maman, cementing herself as one of the best directors and storytellers working today.

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