The latest effort from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” director Céline Sciamma indulges in the act of seeing life through the eyes of a child. “Little Mama” opens in select New York City theaters on April 22.
After the success of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, winner of the Queer Palm, when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, Céline Sciamma returns to the big screen with an endearing story of friendship between two young girls.
Sciamma’s tightly constructed 72-minute sequel to what is arguably its magnum opus is a wonderful exercise in minimalism that deftly recycles its sets to tell a penetrating story about coming of age and coming out of it. Interested in the elasticity of time, “Petite Maman” is a film of pure happiness that supports the joy of living against the fear that the mortal coil of humanity could break at any moment.
The film’s premise, which is far more “The Twilight Zone” than anything the director has done before, revolves around a young girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who, after the death of her grandmother, falls about a younger version of her mother, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who looks like an identical version of herself. But, for all its fantastic sci-fi elements, Sciamma films “Little Mama” with such pragmatism that the film’s more mystical elements are able to hide their magic under the guise of banality.
In doing so, Sciamma evokes a film akin to that of Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro”, where magic is so well integrated into the world that it is beyond doubt. This particular strain of European magical realism, in the hands of a master storyteller like Sciamma, manages to combine the charm of Miyazaki with the visual delight of Seurat’s landscapes where the fuzzy transience of the world is best captured through the meticulousness of the codes of color. Cinematographer Claire Mathon does wonders here, bringing out the patterned contrasts of red, blue and green throughout the film to highlight the film’s more surreal qualities while reinforcing that its characters live in wooden houses with porcelain tiles, like everyone else. .
This highlighting of the real to highlight the surreal is also found in the relationship that develops between Nelly and Marion, her mother in miniature. The two girls never question the strange coincidence that they look exactly alike – they just dedicate themselves to performing elaborate and ridiculous plays, running around in the woods and making pancakes.
They are children through and through, so immersed in their own fictions due to their limited understanding of the universe that they would rather simply come up with more games to play than spend their time dwelling on the puzzling nature of the world around them, their playground. It all comes down to the fact that when you are a child, everything is bigger than you, and as such is too big to comprehend. Sciamma’s decision to cut a mother and her cinematic reach into two places and a short duration becomes an act of escapism from the bends of mortality by indulging in the fiction that the world is a happy playground despite its transient nature.
“Petite Maman” is a monumental miniature full of magic. From the way his characters wander, to the way Mathon’s camera wanders, and the way time crumbles on itself throughout the film, it’s clear that Sciamma relishes the supernatural temper of his film. But in the end, it’s the truths she unearths from “Little Mama’s” musings on time that linger beyond the film’s short runtime.
Contact Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]ews.com.