Petite Maman: Céline Sciamma’s Follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The brilliant French director Céline Sciamma followed her international breakthrough, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with an intimate contemporary tale of a young girl coping with the death of her maternal grandmother by bonding with her own mother

The Premise:

A tale of a young girl’s experiencing loss for the first time, and the original, magical ways of how she confronts and handles her grief.

Written and directed by Sciamma, the film stars Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse and Margo Abascal.

The film had its world premiere at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. It also screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and at the 2021 San Sebastián Festival, where it won the Audience Award.

In the first scene, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her maternal grandmother, goes from room to room to say goodbye to a series of older women.

Her parents retreat to her mother’s childhood home in order to empty it out, but it’s not clear how long the process will take.

Meanwhile, Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse), deeply upset herself, leaves the place during the night without saying a word to Nelly.

Bored and with plenty of time on her hands, Nelly goes into the woods, where she meets Marion, a girl her own age, who’s building a fort.

Marion, who’s extremely friendly, invites Nelly to help her, and later takes Nelly to her home.

The girls further bond when they share a sad fact of their lives. When Nelly explains she is visiting the area due to her grandmother’s death, Marion opens up and tells her that her own grandmother, also named Nelly, had also died recently.

Going through the house, Nelly realizes that it is her grandmother’s house, and that Marion is her mother.

Alarmed, she flees, but is relieved when she returns to the house and finds her father in the present.

Nelly returns a second time to the woods, where she sees her mother again, and they continue to build the fort together.

Nelly learns, that in three days, Marion is set to have an operation to prevent her from developing the same illness as her mother.

Returning repeatedly, Nelly learns things about her mother, such as her ambitions to become an actress.

Describing the plot does not do justice to the filmThe day before departing, Nelly reveals to Marion that she is her daughter and comes from the future. To prove it, she brings Marion to her grandmother’s house where she reveals to Marion that her mother dies when she is 31, and that Nelly loved her deeply.

The two are interrupted by Nelly’s father, who tells Nelly that he has finished clearing the house and wants to leave in time for her mother’s birthday. Marion asks Nelly to sleep over and Nelly convinces her father to let her stay an extra night so she can spend more time with Marion.

Nelly and Marion celebrate Marion’s ninth birthday during the sleepover. The following morning Marion prepares to go to the hospital, and Nelly reassures her the operation will be fine.

Nelly also reveals that her mother is a sad person and she often wonders if it is because of her. Marion reassures her that she does not think this is the case. The two hug, before Marion leaves for the hospital and Nelly returns home for a final time.

Returning to her grandmother’s house, Nelly is surprised by her real mother who has returned for a final viewing of the house.

In the last scene, the two embrace, but when her mother apologizes for her absence, Nelly says that it was no big deal.

Describing the plot does not do justice to this lyrical, surreal tale. Sciamma, a very competent director, finds a way to deal with the dreamlike logic of childhood games in captivatingly realistic terms.


Joséphine Sanz as Nelly
Gabrielle Sanz as Marion
Stéphane Varupenne as Father
Nina Meurisse as Mother
Margo Abascal as Grandmother

Céline Sciamma Filmography (Director)

Water Lilies (2007)

Pauline (2010) (short)

Tomboy (2011)

Girlhood (2014)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Petite Maman (2021)