Céline Sciamma, whose previous film was the much-lauded “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), has written and directed a movie that seems very different. “Petite Maman” is set in the present rather than the 18th century; and romantic ardor in no way informs its story of an 8-year-old girl busying herself as her parents clear out the house of her late grandmother. And where “Portrait” had the emotional intensity of a classic novel (who knew the Brontës had a French cousin with a film camera?), “Petite Maman” feels more like an extended short story. That’s only in part owing to its having a runtime of just 72 minutes. It also has a deceptive uneventfulness and a sense of everything being casually . . . just so.
Yet the two films share something significant (and not just rapturous reviews): a concern with the workings of female identity and the emotional bonds between women of various ages. That concern has been a constant in Sciamma’s work. It’s just that in “Petite Maman,” the females aren’t lovers but mothers, daughters, or friends.
In English, the title means “Little Mother,” a term of affection. Here it’s description as well as diminutive. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), the 8-year-old, is an only child. “Petite Maman” is very much her movie. She’s in every scene, which makes the excellence of Sanz’s performance all the more welcome.
Her grandmother’s final illness has left Nelly more on her own than someone that young would normally be. She can handle it. “You’re gifted for your age,” an admiring neighbor tells her. The neighbor speaks from experience. We see Nelly helping her do a crossword puzzle.
More than just very intelligent, Nelly’s also very serious, almost to the point of solemnity. Sanz’s big-cheeked face and generally blank expression add to this sense of wise-beyond-her-years seriousness. Even the tentativeness of Nelly’s pigeon-toed walk makes her seem more controlled than you’d expect with an 8-year-old. The first time Nelly breaks into laughter, it’s nearly an hour into the movie, and it seems so out of character it’s almost disorienting.
Nelly’s not only a mother to herself. Early on there’s a scene with her and her mother (Nina Meurisse) driving home from the assisted-care facility where the grandmother had lived. “Aperitif time?” Nelly asks from the back seat. It’s a rather enchantingly Eloise moment. Nelly opens a bag of chips and starts reaching up to the front seat to share them. She offers sips from a juice box, too. What seems like a sweetly amusing bit of role reversal will take on more meaning in retrospect.
The grandmother’s house is in the country. While Nelly’s parents pack up the place, she wanders about in the surrounding woods. Woods are often the setting of fairy tales, stories that often feature unusual children as protagonists. A straightforward exercise in naturalistic family drama, or so “Petite Maman” had appeared, begins to take on a different aspect.
Another child appears, Marion. She, too, is 8. It’s a little hard to keep track of which child is which. This is intentional on Sciamma’s part: Marion is played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s real-life twin sister. Low-key realism is giving way to low-key — meta-realism?
The girls’ doubling is only the most overt of several symmetries Sciamma sets up, and not just with the children. There are chimings of names, everyday objects, even the significance of the age of 31. Many viewers may find such trickeration intriguing or in some way profound. As noted above, many reviews have been rapturous. Others may just find it confusing — or, worse, confused. It’s a thin line between prestidigitation and sham. Once that line is crossed, it’s awfully hard to get back.
A key moment comes with about 10 minutes left in the film. There has been no music on the soundtrack whatsoever. It’s a mark of what up to this point has been Sciamma’s consistent, and consistently effective, restraint. Rather than music there’s been something better: a particularly vivid use of sound. This creates a hyper-real effect, perhaps meant to subtly flag the film’s fantastical side. Be that as it may, hyper-real is about to become hyper-something-else.
Nelly and Marion find a rubber raft and take it for a row. Now the music comes, a cascade of synth pop, and suddenly the movie feels like a commercial for a happy childhood. Presumably, we’re supposed to feel elation or exhilaration or even exaltation, in an 8-year-old sort of way. Instead, it feels a lot more like manipulation, in an at-any-age sort of way. Soon enough, the girls get back on dry land. “Petite Maman” does not.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma. Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 72 minutes. PG (some thematic elements, brief smoking)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.