Céline Sciamma makes small films that contain multitudes, tender and vivid portraits of sisterhood and self-becoming.
Imagining spaces out of places where women can discover themselves and each other freely, the French filmmaker first earned acclaim for a trio of social-realist coming-of-age dramas: 2007’s “Water Lilies,” 2011’s “Tomboy,” and 2014’s “Girlhood.” Though connected in their study of adolescence, gender, and sexuality, as well as their close and empathetic attention to outsiders navigating rites of passage, these films — especially “Girlhood” — also revealed Sciamma’s burgeoning interest in modes of female-gaze storytelling beyond the naturalistic.
And so it felt like a creative breakthrough as much as a commercial one when 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at Cannes, catapulted the screenwriter-director to international recognition. Sciamma’s first period piece, it was set in 18th century Brittany and charted the passionate affair between a painter and the noblewoman whose wedding portrait she’s tasked with making. Through their forbidden love story, in which a mutual exchange of stolen glances gave way to radical expressions of desire, Sciamma disrupted the historically one-directional nature of artist-muse relationships and presented a bracing feminist alternative: solidarity that sparks a love of equals, in turn inspiring great art.
“Petite Maman,” out Friday, slips through time as well. Like ‘Portrait,’ Sciamma’s latest is an enchanted memory play, poetic and melancholic in its reconstitution of magical spaces where women support one another in secret. But unlike “Portrait,” the new film takes the form of a fairytale in miniature, delicately erasing the temporal distances between three generations of women.
In it, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) mourns her grandmother’s death while accompanying her parents to clear out their now-vacant family home, where her mother was once raised. Playing in the forest nearby, she befriends Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s identical twin), a strangely familiar young girl who shares her name with Nelly’s mother. After following her to a house that turns out to be her grandmother’s, only decades earlier, Nelly deduces that Marion is her mother as a child. Rather than conceal this fact, she confides in Marion. “You come from the future?” she asks Nelly in response. “I come from the path behind you,” Nelly answers. They go on playing.
Speaking by Zoom, Sciamma explains that “Petite Maman” aims to explore maternal dynamics without the hierarchy that can prevent women at different points in life from seeing each other. “It is mirroring as equality,” she explains, of casting identical twins in the lead roles. “The film tries to bring equality into a situation of matriarchy. You can’t stop that hierarchy. Unless…”
I’ve seen “Petite Maman” described as a time-travel film. Watching it, I was struck more by what the film has to say about memory and imagination as windows to the past. How did you consider the role of time in crafting this story?
It’s true that, when I started writing the film, I didn’t see it at all as a time-traveling film. That didn’t even cross my mind. It was in the process of writing it and facing the dramaturgy of the film, being like, “Okay, at some point, this has to be revealed.” Suddenly, I was like, “There is no time-traveling machine. How is this going to work?” The whole reflection around time in the film happened at that moment, when I decided that, in fact, it wouldn’t be a time-traveling film because it would be timeless, first. There would be no time-traveling machine. It would be this definition of cinema that Andrei Tarkovsky gave: that is, cinema as a sculpture of time.
Each film is a sculpture of time, and “Petite Maman” is officially one. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” in a way, was also, given that it was a flashback. This one is a reflection on time around memories. And when I say memories, I mean the memories that we can invent. That’s the dynamic of the film. It’s a film addressing the future; the name of the musical track in the film is The Music of the Future. It’s addressing future memories. And I think all films are always addressing the memory of themselves. They are working around what memories — which also means what impact — the film will create. Those are two categories of memories. It will create memories of the film and the moment you watched it. And if the film works for the person watching it, there will also be a new memory of each time you watch it, because you will watch it differently. You will watch different things. You will be in another state of mind.
For me, when you rewatch, you decide to enter into conversation with that film again. That’s why there are some films we can watch a lot and others that, even if we love them, we cannot; that conversation is done, in a way. Each time, we have memories of the film. And the film also hopes this idea that it has planted in your brain and your heart will expand, that this will create new memories. The person watching will think, “What if I played with my mother in a forest at eight years old?” This is a new memory.
When I first saw “Petite Maman,” I was moved by that idea: meeting your mother at that age, befriending her. Earlier this month, navigating the loss of my own grandmother — who lived a full life, and whom I’ll miss — made the film resonate in other ways. Nelly is grappling with grief, and she finds this way to make peace with that and say goodbye to her grandmother.
First of all, I’m sorry for your loss.
You said she lived a full life. I had two grandmothers. One had a very full life, and the other one had a sad life. And I remember it felt really different, losing them. In a way, losing someone very old who had a full life frees them from any age. Suddenly, you have all ages, especially if you’ve known them fully alive. It’s a very different feeling.
As a story about daughters, mothers, and grandmothers, “Petite Maman” feels very archetypal. Tell me about exploring matriarchy through women at these three stages in life.
When this story hit me — in the form of an image that was this mother and daughter playing in the forest together, and they were both eight years old — I felt that this was a myth, that it was a story that had been told and hadn’t been translated or that I wasn’t aware of: an ancient myth from a matriarchal civilization and culture. I decided to treat it like that, and that I would give my interpretation of that myth. My question within that myth was, “If I met my mother as a kid, would she be my sister? Would we share the same mother, and would she be my grandmother?”
Sometimes, people talk about the film as being about a mother-daughter relationship, and I really see it as a trio. Kids, when they’ve seen the film, are all about the grandmother. They’re connected to that; they might have lost their grandmother, so they’re connected to missing that person and knowing that person. Or they had luck to grow old as adults with their grandmother, and they know that they’re the person that they will lose first. They’re connected to that arc and that link.
The scenes where they’re this little family are both peaceful and troubling. If you want to put trouble in a hierarchy, and it’s two characters, it’s not trouble. It’s the opposite, a power balance. With three, it can be more playful, and you can bring horizontality. That’s what I wanted to do: break down this hierarchy and put horizontality in genealogy, see what that produces.
Casting sisters as a mother and daughter, as well, adds to this idea of caregiving as an expression of equality, not hierarchy, that’s been central to your work. What is the importance of these intimate scenes of characters nourishing one another?
The film starts with this petite maman. A “little mum” can, of course, be a mum that’s little, but a little mum might also just be Nelly. The first 10 minutes of the film are the most naturalistic, as I’ve drifted away from realism. We see she cares. She feeds the mother. It’s not just the parents that take care of the kids. Kids take care of their parents. It’s just that they do it in secret, not because they’re not loved but because they’re not given information. They have to investigate what they must care for.
It’s a special way to care, and that’s why it’s not officially acknowledged in society. You have to investigate. That’s why I love to put kids at the center of films. They are great characters for the cinema I want to make: a cinema where looking and gazing is the most important, which means it’s a form of survival. Kids have that tension. We call it curiosity. But it’s also a dependence on understanding without being fully told. The film fully tells what’s happening in this situation, which is a fantasy but also trying to be straightforward. That may be where this world is a fairy-tale: kids ask questions, and they have answers.
You have mentioned Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki as a guiding influence on “Petite Maman.” There’s a tenderness and profundity to his films, which also capture this sense of magic in childhood. Especially since writing the script for an animated film yourself — 2016’s “My Life As a Zucchini” — what does animation signify to you as a filmmaker?
Writing “My Life As a Zucchini” really made things different for me. For the first time, I was writing officially for kids. They were always in the back of my mind. When I’d made “Tomboy” and was screening the film, I had tried to make the film watchable by kids. [laughs] But this time, it was official, and the book I was adapting was dealing with a high level of violence and truth around abuse. I was facing this riddle of, “How do you adapt that for a kid audience?”
It made me ask myself questions about the ethics of writing for kids, of creating a safe space — which doesn’t mean that you’re just saying things that are harmless. It means you’re creating a world, a structure and atmosphere, so they feel they can take the risk of trusting the film. You’re creating a safe space so someone can give their emotions and be active with it. For the first time, I also went more straightforward with dialogues, characters expressing their emotions. That experienced how I felt, which also meant the pleasure I felt, at how it felt right. It had an influence on my politics of writing.
And animation, in general, has been inspirational. No one’s saying Miyazaki is doing cinema for kids, whereas people say that about Pixar movies they will watch, reluctantly, next to their kids. It’s democratic cinema, for everyone. It’s also not the groove that we expect that kids would indulge well. There are a lot of different grooves in Miyazaki’s films, as they go. I was thinking about “My Neighbor Totoro,” about kids in nature. Even the dramaturgy of animation — which is generally linked to loss, to goodbyes, to being grateful, to leaving the world of childhood — deals a lot with grief. And adventure, too: the adventure of solitude and the wild that is just outside your house.
One element of your work I’m drawn to is your ability to create what is, in essence, a private universe, for characters to navigate their emotions. “Petite Maman” unfolds in this autumnal realm. How did you and your collaborators approach creating that atmosphere?
When I was writing, I took the early decision to shoot in studio, which meant that we were going to build this world from scratch, that everything would be chosen. When you shoot on natural sets, this film could have been shot in any house. You’re not going to be at the studio to watch a little girl eat cereal, especially if you’re not doing a house in the past and a house in the future. But the idea of the film was that it should be timeless, that it wasn’t a time-traveling film because it was about creating a common space in time for the characters — and for the people watching it, as a world of its own. Someone from the ‘60s or someone from 2020 could connect to that world, saying, “It’s my childhood. It’s my mother.”
We worked around continuity to create a common space in time, which meant that the lighting would include very strong continuity. The sound design, we built one strong atmosphere, and some of the exact same sounds were used in the present and the past. The sound you hear when someone’s doing something in the kitchen, whether it’s the father or the grandmother, it’s the exact same.
All those decisions, it’s not that they are the most impactful; it’s just that we took them. We choose everything, and you know that. Everyone should know that, but you feel it. When you were asking about care, that’s also the level of care: having chosen and built this whole private world, giving it the most depth. Everything is a decision because it’s something you love the most. And when you shoot on a natural set, it’s the same process of choosing what you want to look at, what you love, but it’s based on reality, so it’s a matter of this rather than that, excluding. It’s poetic, choosing every light-switch; that’s what also keeps the layers to an image. It’s this level of choice. That’s also why animation is so impactful, because we fully know everything has been designed. Everything was a choice; it’s very much art. We know it’s the groove of ideas. And so we know we are celebrating cinema.
“Petite Maman” is in theaters April 22. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.