Top 20 Films of 2021: #3- Petite Maman

I’ll never forget seeing Avengers: Endgame in a packed theater and listening to the crowd response. I’m someone who likes the Marvel films perfectly well enough on balance, but I knew that some of the people around me were going through something cinematically evangelical. I was surrounded by people who felt a profound and powerful connection to the saga of these heroes and their final chapter as a whole unit. Some of them felt an almost religious zeal for Tony Stark and his superpowered friends and they were watching the decade-long culmination of their tale with a rapt attention that felt positively electric. It didn’t matter if my very energized enjoyment fell somewhere considerably below theirs. I felt strangely moved to be in its presence all the same. I really appreciated getting to bear witness to it. Everyone should have some piece of art (and hopefully many more than one) that sets their soul alight and makes them sit all the way up in their seat. For some, in fact many, the return of the dead Marvel heroes and Tony Stark’s noble sacrifice at the end of Endgame provided that kind of thrilling, undeniable catharsis that we go to the movies in search of. It’s what I seek in movies too. I’m just built a little differently, so my 2021 version of Endgame was an adorable little French girl who feels sad she didn’t properly say goodbye to her recently departed grandma getting to go back in time and have a more satisfying farewell. You see, American populace? We’re not so different you and I. And I am truly not kidding around here. When Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman finally gave me the tender moment it had set up just forty-five minutes ago, I was that ecstatic Marvel audience contained within the body of one sensitive man. I pumped my fist. I shed happy tears. I shook my spouse by the shoulders, incandescent with joy. Whether it’s twenty heroes you thought were dead walking out of a portal to save the day or a lovable French child walking back in time to help ease her grief, every film-lover deserves the life-affirming pleasure of a perfect payoff moment. This was mine, and it had all been delivered to me in a perfect, unbelievably tight 72-minute package. Tender emotions, love for one’s family, and sweet-natured whimsy. What can I say? This kind of thing never fails to quicken my pulse, awaken my soul, and get me completely fucking amped! “This is why we go to the damn movies!,” I bellow as a sweet French child warmly hugs her mother about the neck.

We meet 8-year old Nelly in the immediate aftermath of her grandmother’s passing. The word foremost in her mind is “goodbye”. She and her mother have packed all of the late woman’s personal items in their station wagon and Nelly is saying her last farewells to the other nursing home residents, who she has grown close to over the past weeks. She finishes one last crossword puzzle with one of them. We sense a very close, easy bond between Nelly and her mother, Marion. They speak softly to each other and listen intently. With the nursing home in the car’s rearview, they are now headed to one last stop: Nelly’s mother’s childhood home somewhere in a very arboreal part of France. They need to spend a handful of days and nights there , clearing out the lovely old cottage and deciding what to keep from the past. They arrive in the dark of night and quietly bed down there like pilgrims tiptoeing into a holy place. Nelly’s father is there in the morning to greet them with breakfast and a smile. Nelly wants to know about this place, to explore it, to see the woods and streams where an 8-year old Marion once tromped about. She wants to see the clearing where her young mother once built a hut of tree branches. Marion is too preoccupied with the emotionally draining busy work to spend much time with Nelly, at least during the day. They do find time in the evenings to sit in each other’s company, to look at Marion’s childhood drawings and to talk. Nelly shares her deep sadness about her grandmother’s death and how unfulfilling their last goodbye was. The problem is that Nelly didn’t know it would be their last chance. And it pains her all the more to think that maybe her grandmother did know it was the last time. One morning, Nelly wakes up to find only her father in the kitchen. Marion has left, not permanently we sense, but it’s also unclear when she will return. She is unable to bear her own sadness for now and Nelly and her father will have to finish the last few days of packing without her. That morning, Nelly walks into the woods and sees a little girl her age down in the clearing. A girl who looks very, very much like her. They start building a hut out of branches together and the little girl takes Nelly home for warm chocolate milk. Her home is the same as Marion’s childhood home, though there is no sign of Nelly’s father in this version. The girl introduces herself to Nelly and we have no doubt of what she will say next. Her name is Marion. The sweetest, most humane children’s film of 2021 is also technically maybe one of the best time travel stories ever written.

At its heart (its enormous, tender, Gallic heart), Petite Maman is a clear-eyed ode to mothers and daughters. It is an ode that touches softly on the complications and strains between a mother and the girl who may one day become like her. It is interested in the pressures placed on mothers and sympathetic to the emotional toll of tyring to be a constant support system for another little person while also tending to your own mental health. The film’ s central conceit, which it handles with a warm and feathered touch, is that adult Marion has become overwhelmed by her grief and sadness, maybe not to a seismic, dysfunctional extent, but enough so that she must briefly pull away from her daughter. It is in adult Marion’s absence that Nelly starts to examine her mother’s frailties while also come to lover her even more as a fully dimensional human being. THe movie also has a marvelously sweet side plot about Nelly bonding with her father. When she asks the amiably goofy man (a textbook Dad rendered with remarkable depth) to have a deep conversation with her about his biggest childhood fear, he pauses and then gently whispers to her, “I was afraid of my father.” Then he regards her with a familiar smile. And we pick up in an instant that Nelly will not have that same problem with her own father. Through Petite Maman‘s delicate sprinkling of science fiction, Nelly gets to learn new facets about her mother from a child’s vantage point, like her long lost dream of becoming an actress. She gets to learn more and she gets to provide her mother with encouragement at an earlier stage in her life. They support each other as two children in the same steady, loving way they do as adult and child. In the kindest, least didactic way possible, Petite Maman is about the beauty of getting to know your parents better. If there is a moral to this effortlessly wise, good-natured masterpiece, it is just that parents and children should see one another in full nuance. That we should speak to each other, hear each other, see each other. It’s simple emotional truths are brought to radiant life by Celine Sciamma’s unpretentious, lushly unfussy confidence as a writer and director.

Petite Maman begins with a devastating loss of life and extends to include a parent’s absence before it reaches its central magical conceit some thirty minutes in. It is in many ways a film about grappling with loss’ toll, and yet it is more about things found. Things that cannot be taken from us because they belong to very core of who we are. It is about a world we make inside for the people we love the most, where they can always be waiting for us. The magic in Celine Sciamma’s wondrous film is real and not imagined, but it is a film with something to say about the quiet strength of a child’s inner world and how we adults can become stronger by returning to that mindset. Like some swirling piece by Debussy, it is a film driven more by emotion and tone than by rigid plot stakes. That said, Nelly does have a couple goals to attain. She years for the return of her mother, Marion, which is why it is so breathtakingly tender to see her find her mother again in a younger form with fears and wants of her own. It is almost as if the frightened, bereft adult Marion has fled back to this state. Nelly also longs for a do-over of her grandmother’s final days, a chance to apply her newfound maturity about loss and give their last goodbye the impossible sense of reverence it calls for. Petite Maman is less about the sadness of parting than about the fortifying power of the love we have for each other. It is a life-affirming, restorative elixir distilled from the best kinds of pain. The kind we only feel because of how very connected we are to those in our lives. That overpowering yet understated better goodbye, when it finally arrives, is also a hello and a reaffirmation of what matters most. To Nelly and to the audience at home thinking of their own mothers and grandmothers. Nelly is embracing her grandmother and storing away a new memory that will represent their time together. It will represent the goodbye Nelly feels should have been. Our last moments with each other before death don’t have to be the defining ones. They probably shouldn’t be. But wouldn’t it be lovely to literally have the power to go back and live one last moment with a loved one without death’s shadow floating nearby? It is a power that can only be given through memory, or childlike imagination, or through the gift of cinema as radiantly empathetic as Celine Sciamma’s.

I’ve thankfully grown thicker skin as a cinema-goer in my middle years and more particularly as a film-sharer. I used to take film-sharing far too personally. The overly sensitive college kid who desperately wanted other to like whatever he showed them has long since hit the road. I wish him well, but film discourse is a whole lot more fun when you don’t protect your darlings too much. That said, if there is a film of the last few years that brings out that emotionally charged, protective streak in me, it’s probably Petite Maman. Maybe it’s the adorable children or the way it radiates unpretentious kindness from its every pore, but the thought of anyone not liking it pains me. It is a film that moves me to an absolutely transcendent degree and it does it all with impeccably unshowy delicacy. It achieves one of the best editing choices of the year just by choosing to cut when someone turns out a light switch. It doesn’t strain and it doesn’t do anything too flashy, but every decision it makes is small and perfectly judged. It is Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch in a lovely French package. It has the lush conciseness of a great short story. It is also the fifth annual winner of my Damp Face Award, given out to the film that keeps my eyes most consistently dewy. It was my top film of 2021 right up until the last weeks of the film year and I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be back on top again in another year’s time. Words like “enchanting” and “disarming” fit and yet struggle to do it full justice.  It is autumnal and earthy and quietly very immersive. For a film whose aural trappings consist mostly of rustling leaves, dipped canoe paddles and children brushing their teeth, it’s sound design is almost comically strong. This may seem small-scale but Sciamma wants us to hear everything. The better to feel everything. It is a film both gossamer-light and intoxicatingly weighty. I spent most of my first viewing of the film in a deep hush, gently wrapped up by it, breathing softly. Great films hold our attention, but Petite Maman felt like it was actually holding me. It is simply a thing that feels too pure and too good for this world. I caution the twenty-something blowhard of my college days to behave and remind him that we no longer bristle at people who don’t connect to things we love. “But this is different,” he stammers back. “This is not about us. It’s about little Nelly and her mother and grandmother.” I recall Ralph Fiennes snapping at Colin Farrell’s stubborn resistance to the medieval whimsy of Bruges in In Bruges. Some things are so magical and pure that contrarianism shouldn’t apply to them. Petite Maman is a heart-welling, humane little Faberge egg full of wonder, wisdom and compassion. As Fiennes exclaimed, how can that be “not someone’s thing”? In seriousness, you are more than welcome to feel however you like about Petite Maman. But, in the event you end up not liking it, take the film’s lead and break it to me gently.

The sweet, gracefully unfurling rhythm of Petite Maman is so soothing and unhurried, it feels rare even within the boundaries of indie cinema. Even within the bounds of French indie cinema for that matter. Even the stylings of low stakes favorites like Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch can’t quite account for the subtle and substantive hybrid Sciamma achieves here. Her masterwork (make that her second consecutive one after 2019’s titanic Portrait of A Lady On Fire) feels as ethereal as a summer daydream but I also don’t know of a film that latched more firmly on to my heart. It speaks softly, sweetly and with an adorably unassuming authority. In that way, what it reminds me of most are the poignant, delicately powerful animated films of Japanese maestro Hayao Miyazaki. Like  My Neighbor TotoroSpirited Away and PonyoPetite Maman insists on giving a child’s view of the world true gravity, while also maintaining a childlike innocence. It maintains a youthful faith in humanity and people’s goodness toward one another. It is a kind of innocence that still allows the world to have some sense of danger, melancholy and confusion. It operates from a place that thinks adults are too quick to reduce the emotional complexity of children down to that which is easy, palatable, and trite. The two children of Petite Maman (one mother and one daughter) have bruisingly honest conversations about parenting, depression, disappointments and the future. The film never shies away from the painful truths of growing up, losing people, occasionally failing each other. And yet, it still manages to be the most radiantly good film I saw all year. Like Miyazaki’s best films, it is a magic spell all the more special because it comes from the world we humans inhabit. It is about the beautifully grounded enchantments of family and friendships. About how we might wear those fundamentally good things as charms from our necks to remind us how much good there is in life. Charms worn not to protect us from grief, for that is impossible, but to make the notion of loss more bearable. It’s a hard thing to have to mourn. But it’s an honor and a privilege to suffer for each other.

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