There are few things in contemporary cinema as pleasurable as witnessing Céline Sciamma’s fascination with childhood. Although she doesn’t technically make films for children (although she did co-write the screenplay for My Life as a Courgette) her stories often are told from their point of view. Whether it’s young Parisian women trying to find their place in the world in Girlhood, or the child in Tomboy discovering there is more to gender than they’ve been asked to believe, Sciamma’s way of seeing the world negotiates who we were and what we can become with utter wonder. Even at the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s the silent gaze of a child in a painting that ultimately highlights the film’s unrelenting power.
In Petite Maman, Sciamma explores the meaning of grief and how loss can strangely lead to wondrous beginnings. Not that her films, particularly this one, are naively optimistic either––in fact, its protagonist, eight-year-old Nelly (Jósephine Sanz), begins as someone living in a slowly crumbling world. Her grandmother has just died and she travels with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to her house to pack the late woman’s belongings. Although she doesn’t comment on it, Nelly sees her mother’s profound pain and acknowledges it by subtly trying to make her happy.
When her grief-stricken mother decides to leave suddenly, Nelly is left behind while her father wraps up their endeavor. One day in the nearby woods Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who is roughly around her age, lives close to her, and happens to be her mother, well, a past version of her. Without getting into the oft cumbersome logistics of time travel, Sciamma delivers a moving, profoundly human fable in which we are reminded that adulthood and childhood might as well be illusions.
As the film arrives in the U.S., we spoke to Sciamma about the pleasures she encountered in childhood, how they transformed her, and why Petite Maman is a film about resurrection.
The Film Stage: I was struck by the many ways this movie is about the movies, how they preserve someone’s essence forever. Was making Petite Maman about the power of cinema to you?
Céline Sciamma: When I started to write the film I really thought: I’m going to make it like it’s the first film of cinema. And by that it wasn’t just theoretical. I thought: I’m going to use the exact same tools. It’s going to be a studio shoot. We’re building this whole house to film a little girl eating cereal. You know, this is a film that could have been shot in any house—why would you have to build a set? We would also have to build the whole soundtrack of sound and the magic would be in the cut; editing would be some form of tele-transportation. It would look at magic realism, which is a genre that was one of the first genres invented by cinema through technology, which is a relationship with ghosts.
And so part of your question is linked to how cinema is a machine to resurrect. And it’s true that for the first time—“oh, it’s a reconstitution”—because that set we built, the design of the house, was based on the interior of my grandmother’s home, and the character of the grandmother is really based on my own grandmother. For the first time I was actually dealing with a ghost. And even though that was not the heart of the film because it’s not given, I could feel the power of that and I could connect to imagining what it felt like for my colleagues from the past or the present to actually fully tell the story. It must be something I’ve never done! [Laughs]
I think it’s also talking about cinema because I was between two impulses: one was to make it an animation film that would be officially for kids. And to think about the kind of dramaturgy of a Miyazaki film rather than Back to the Future––to really anchor myself in that tradition. And in the meantime thinking that this was a film about presence, that this was a film about the body of the other person being there—their breath, you know, the sound of that. So it was this big reflection and thoughts on cinema that were at the heart of the radical choices of the film. And I think it also talks about cinema within myth and how fiction has an impact on life. Cinema as a spell, cinema also as a therapeutic tool—you know, the idea that cinema can have an impact and fiction can have an impact. And so thinking about the social or the cultural power of cinema.
Marion tells Nelly about the scary black panther she used to see in the shadows when she was little, which made me think of how little sleep I got as a child because I was convinced I could see the devil in my window. I wonder if, for you, putting your childhood fears in the movie or in your art helps you exorcise or get rid of them?
I don’t know if I get rid of them, but I make them happen and it connects me to the fact that that’s probably what I did at the time––make them happen. That devil wasn’t there, that was your mind creating it. You were seeing things, you were imagining—as you know in Solange Knowles’ song, which I think is beautiful. What is making art? It’s seeing things you’ve imagined.
And, well, our fears are in childhood. All our fears are real, but the way we project them through camera obscura, that’s cinema. You’re projecting the same things in shadows because of the lights and as a child you were already in charge of that. I guess it’s a peaceful thought to think that you were in charge of seeing things you were imagining and that now you still do it, but for the better good.
After watching the film, I couldn’t stop listening to pieces of music that you wrote with Para One (Jean-Baptiste de Laubier). How did you two come up with the stunning “La Musique du Futur”?
Yeah, I really wanted one song and I pitched it to Jean-Baptiste by saying I want it to be like the beginning credit of a cartoon of a childhood that didn’t exist. Very epic, adventurous, and he wrote that theme. I think the connection that we have together is really around childhood, and every time he comes up with a melody, that’s it. He came in with that melody and he actually suggested that there should be lyrics because I wanted a choir of young kids, I wanted to keep on collaborating with kid artists. Jean-Baptiste said, well, there should be some lyrics. And so for the first time––and I did write lyrics for Portrait of a Lady on Fire but practically as a joke [Laughs]––I really committed. I said, okay, I’m going to write lyrics for a song for kids that they’re going to sing with their full hearts.
I really started investing in the different melody lines and started to write lyrics in the future tense. The lyrics of the song go “voices of kids will sing new dreams.” I was really thinking about it like it should feel like a political anthem that could be sung in a protest where kids would be marching with animals. This would be the anthem to this ecofeminist protest. What is the music of the future is also the only question that the little mom asks about what’s next, which is quite counterintuitive in what is a form of time-traveling film.
It’s a beautiful question, though! You shot the movie in late 2020, which means that we were already in the midst of the pandemic. In so many ways, although people pretend that childhood is magical and perfect, it can also be a very lonely time. I wonder how these feelings of isolation came into play in your work with Joséphine and Gabrielle, because you shot during a time when the entire world was forced to be isolated?
It’s true that collaborating with them at that moment in our existence was strongly connected to some form of isolation. They experienced it, the lack of global mobility, and the fear of losing and death. I don’t think childhood is a dream and I always try to take kids seriously, but this time we couldn’t even pretend that we were not all in the middle of a very morbid moment, that we were all having the same level of information about. That’s why the film was made at that moment—it was a decision. I had just gotten out of the Portrait press tour in the U.S. and I wasn’t in a rush to make another film, but as the pandemic hit that very intemporal story that I felt I could do anytime—cause it was kind of a fable—became, in a way, more relevant.
It became very actual, whether it was in the decision of making it or in the process of making it at that very particular moment, because it was the second lockdown in France and we were authorized to shoot films. So it meant we would be crossing empty Paris and empty roads to get to the suburbs where we would enter this box where we would only see faces that we would film after action. Looking at a face was a privilege and very important. I think the film, the images of the film, are charged with that tension of the skin in that moment.
You mentioned the cereal-eating in the film. We also see the girls having soup with cheese and making crépes, all of which made me think about how simple our pleasures can be when we’re children—we don’t need caviar and champagne to be delighted. I wonder if there are some of these simple traditions that give you pleasure that you have carried from your childhood up until today.
A lot! I think I try to import them back now, which is not regressive––it’s because I really believe that I try to live my adult life like the kid I was wanted to live. I remember feeling free for the first time as a kid when I ate crisps after half past 10 in my bed in summer camp. At that moment I had the feeling that that was life, that was autonomy, that was choice. So I try to still eat crisps after 10 and I’m looking for that feeling of freedom. It’s really an unconventional life. I don’t have kids. I live by myself and that was my projection as a kid. I remember that feeling of wanting to be in charge of my time, which kids aren’t always in charge of. Sometimes they don’t wanna do things they’re told to. Why should they brush their teeth when they’re told? They only have, like, one hour to themselves. Why they can’t do what they want?
Has your idea of what cinema can do changed from when you were little and watched movies to now that you’re an adult who actually gets to make them?
Yeah, it has changed in the fact that I find it rare that I experience what I expect from cinema. And before just the idea of it was already super-fulfilling. I wasn’t questioning the status of the image, the fact that they existed, the fact that I could always go see a new film, that that already was celebrating cinema. And now, of course, that I’m more deep into those images I find that feeling much rarer, but when it happens it’s so much stronger. It’s so much stronger because it’s [Gasps] ravishing.
So I like it better this way. I like the accuracy of growing old. It means also that I’m looking for it a lot, cause when it’s rare you have to look for it. [Laughs] But I mostly find it in popular culture, you know. I must say I’m really hit by things from popular culture. One of the recent things that hit me really super strong, for instance, was Wandavision. It’s not this hidden gem or whatever. It’s not being picky or snob. It’s there to see.
Petite Maman is now in U.S. theaters and expands wide on May 6.