Grief pervades every aspect of Petite Maman, though not as a free-floating metaphor or even as much of a focal point. It’s understated, to the point where we never see the death that looms over the entire film: the Grandmother of 8-year-old Nelly. We don’t hear it talked about, either — in the opening scene, we watch Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travel from one room to another, saying her goodbyes to elderly people in turn. It’s an innocuous act, something we wouldn’t blink at on its own until Nelly reaches the room where her Mother (Nina Meurisse) is packing things up and asks if they’re going to keep grandma’s cane. She said her goodbyes because she has no reason to come back.
The next stop is an old house in the woods, where Mother grew up and where they store the rest of Grandmother’s belongings. They meet Nelly’s Father (Stéphane Varupenne) there, and he helps them pack. None of them cry. If there was going to be a tearful breakdown, perhaps they’ve already had it. Grief, here, is a catalyst. It’s the destabilizer for the strange events to follow, where Nelly encounters a girl in the woods who is also eight years old. Her name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), which is also the name of Nelly’s Mother.
The Path Behind You
This encounter happens after Mother leaves suddenly. Grief has prompted quiet introspection, of the kind that finds Mother gone when Nelly wakes up. She thought it was best, Father says simply, and he does not seem broken up about. If there was shouting in the night, they managed not to wake their child. Initially, I assumed this had more to do with the pure difficulty of clearing out what was left in Grandmother’s house. But, then, why leave in the middle of the night without a word to her daughter?
Nelly, in other words, isn’t quite trusted, much like how she is left to her own devices while the adults take care of all the packing. There is a gap in understanding, or in the perception of her ability to understand. And as if to bridge that gap, the young Marion appears in the woods, building a fort out of sticks the way Mother told Nelly she did as a child. The two become friends, and when they cross to the opposite end of the woods, Nelly finds that Marion lives with her own mother (Margo Abascal), in a past version of the very house that Father is clearing out. She can tell by the hall closet, the tile patterns, the wallpaper that was never changed all the way.
There are a couple of maudlin directions this setup might have gone in if, say, Marion was an aged-down version of Nelly’s present Mother. But writer/director Céline Sciamma, who made the excellent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, resists the obvious. Instead, Marion functions as a genuine presence from the past, a girl who doesn’t see her future daughter in front of her but just another girl who likes the same things: building things out of sticks, dribbling soup from their mouths back into the bowl, acting out scenes from stories that are perhaps a bit old for them. Petite Maman is a gentle film, quiet and rooted in a profound yet simplistically childlike observation: adults don’t tell their kids about their childhoods. They tell them snippets, but never in full; the picture of who your parent once was is never complete.
“A Game You Play Alone”
As we watch the girls, we come to realize that Nelly’s emotional intelligence exceeds what the adults in her life assume, even if she doesn’t totally have the vocabulary to express those feelings. Eventually, she tells Marion who she is, and she talks about Marion’s future unhappiness. She notices things she is not supposed to notice or believed to be capable of noticing: the forlorn sadness, the buried ambivalence of having had Nelly “when she was young.” Nelly makes fun of Father for not remembering things about his wife, but that playful jab speaks to a greater dissatisfaction: he doesn’t remember, and the grown Marion resents that he doesn’t remember.
Fantasy is often associated with escapism, but sometimes that escapism calls attention to its very impossibility. In Petite Maman, there’s something truly and deeply sad that these gaps in understanding between parent and child may never be bridged in actuality. But even in the film, it’s fleeting; the weight of the real world rushes in, and we remember that a parent can never truly go back to talk to their child on their level, as an equal in age and maturity.
And even in the film, that understanding is limited. Nelly tells her fears to Marion, who reassures her, but how can Marion know? “I don’t think it’s your fault,” Marion tells Nelly. At that moment, it’s probably exactly what Nelly needs to hear from exactly who she needs to hear it from. But that doesn’t necessarily give it any truth. Mentally, how can Marion step into the shoes of an older self and offer an explanation when so much life and time separates the two? Even here, the only reassurance is thin.
As the girls’ difficulties and inner longings come into focus, our understanding of their actions and their attitudes evolve. Their self-sufficiency is, maybe, a cry out for attention, a necessary adaptation to the way they live. We see them caring for their elders, because that is the role they must play in order to be seen as more than a nuisance, a burden, or a mistake. They don’t have siblings, and in briefly finding one another, that loneliness only grows more apparent.
The fantasy is never explained, and it doesn’t need to be. Petite Maman never falls back on the easy belief that this this is just in Nelly’s head, because the alternative is so much more fraught with meaning than an imagined encounter. Like the portrayal of grief, the fantasy works most as a tool for revelation and exploration; what matters most is not the specifics so much as what it unearths.