From director Celine Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), “Petite Maman” is an eerie and affecting tale surprising in its matter of fact delivery. Brisk and vivid, it is a ghost story of sorts that is unique as it is devoid of any supernatural trappings.
At first it might seem as if the film is a bit like the iconic “The Twilight Zone,” specifically “Nightmare As a Child” with its case of an odd girl looking at her adult self, but here the tone is softer. That being said, the ingredients include some instances of the uncanny.
A quiet girl, Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother. The stress of this is so upsetting to the mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) that she leaves the family, presumably to meet up later. Dad (Stephane Varupenne) is left to pack up the house.
One day walking alone, Nelly sees a solitary girl, (Gabrielle Sanz) building a hut before an impending rain. Nelly helps the girl (nearly a double) and learns she is named Marion, her mother’s name.
Nelly goes back to the girl’s house. It is identical to hers. The two play together.
The next day Nelly tells her amused dad that she has a new friend.
The two play together again. Marion tells Nelly that she is about to have an operation, then asks her to go to her house. The two make omelets. Dad appears and Marion seems to vanish.
During these scenes there is a slow haunting tone as if we are watching a dream. Though there are no supernatural effects or echoes the pair of children exchange mysterious knowing glances which give the film a haunt a shade like “The Others” or Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.” But in this film, there is engaging sweetness instead of outright scares.
When it is time for Nelly to leave and join her adult mother, it is bizarre to see the two children embrace not as mother and daughter but as childhood friends, especially knowing that the eight-year old child is very scared of an operation, a mysterious ailment that will plague her mom throughout her life and grow worse.
In a transfixing scene, young Marion and Nelly are hugging goodbye while the adult Marion is waiting in the car.
What might it be like to meet your young self? According to “Petite Maman” it is nothing forbidding or sinister, but it just might lead to some heartache.
Perhaps childhood after all is best left to the unknown.
Write Ian at email@example.com