Greg and Zanna watch something that makes them think about time.
Things that are more meaningful than they appear (movie): 5
Things that are more meaningful than they appear (reviewers' lives): 0
Everyone I've ever known and respected loved Celine Sciamma's 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire but regrettably Greg and I haven't seen it. So, beyond revelling in the 72-minute running time of her new film Petite Maman, I went in with high hopes but few expectations - and it was a complete delight.
It's about an 8-year-old girl, Nelly, whose grandmother has just passed away. While helping clear out her grandmother's home, she meets and befriends another young girl, her doppelganger, who turns out to be her mother as a child. On premise alone, it could be described as a science fiction film but it has none of the main tropes of that genre. It explores a fictional reality without any fanfare around the central conceit.
Because the two lead characters are children, they take the discovery that they are mother and daughter in their stride. There is never a moment when we think they might try to figure out how a glitch in the matrix has occurred and set out to save humanity by repairing it. Instead, it's a simple, sweet story of two little girls finding comfort in new friends at a difficult time.
Playing with my children on their level is probably the hardest part of parenting for me. I spent several years down on my hands and knees being a horse. It overjoyed the children to see their mother enter into their world as a peer, just another character at the farm they'd created in their imaginations but, truthfully, I hated it. It was relentless and my knees hurt. I'm not a child but what if I could be? What if I could travel through time to my childhood and say, "Race you up the stairs!" to my daughter and actually care who won?
In the film, Nelly's mother - depressed and grieving - has left, so it's a gift and a salve for Nelly to meet her mother as a child and see her in another way. The casting of twin actors, Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz, meant that Sciamma was not inhibited by the technical restrictions of having one actor playing opposite themselves, and it really pays off. There's no faking the pure, childlike connection between the two actors/sisters, which made the premise feel deeply poignant. Or maybe it feels poignant to me because I have an 8-year-old daughter and sometimes it'd be nice if she could have the 8-year-old version of me.
I told Zanna I thought the movie was not as simple as it seemed and that it would yield considerable results for the viewer interested in giving it some deep exploration. At that point our 8-year-old said, "What's exploration?" and, while I was trying to answer, Zanna left the room. Not sure where she went. Maybe the toilet. This was 6.15am.
After she returned, 10 minutes later, I took up where I'd left off. I said, "When you think deeply about it, which I haven't, but I've thought about thinking deeply about it, it will give and give and give."
She was making a cup of tea. She had her back to me. I couldn't see her face but I could guess at it.
I said I thought the movie was a meditation on time, full of small elements that were suggestive of bigger ideas. I brought up the moment the central character, 8-year-old Nelly, says to her 8-year-old friend/mother: "I come from the path behind you."
I said, "There were lots of things like that, which on the surface seem benign, but they're indicative of something deeper."
Zanna hesitated a long time before responding. It was still not quite 6.30am. "I'm not interested in getting into any kind of argument about this," she said. "Not interested in that."
"What's the argument?" I said.
She hesitated. "That line doesn't seem like any old line. It stood out quite clearly as meaning something."
"Okay," I said. "Did you think that at the time?"
"Yes," she said. "That it was some kind of way of describing their existence on the space-time continuum."
"Right," I said.
"Anyhoo, I'm going to go sit on the balcony, have my peaceful time."
"Peaceful time," I said. "No more chat."
"Not now," I said.
"This never goes well for you, honey," she said. "Trying to chat with me first thing in the morning about the film. It's never gone well."
"This is a bit of an issue, isn't it," I said, "With our discussions. At night I'm too tired, in the morning it never goes well for me and in the middle of the day we don't have time."
The door to the balcony slid open. The door to the balcony slid closed. There was no more chat.
Petite Maman is in cinemas now.