The tonalities and textures of our childhood homes stay with us, buried deep within our consciousness: we remember the number of steps in a hallway, the particular feeling of carpet on bare feet, the digits of our home phone number from decades ago. Space retains memory, and our memories retain space, the physical worlds of our childhoods drifting and shifting into the landscape of dreams. As Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space:

“Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”1

A woodland treehouse, made of branches and twine, constructed by a mother when she was eight years old, is a site of fascination, magic, and possibility for her daughter in Céline Sciamma’s delicate 2021 filmic fable Petite Maman. Sciamma crafts a world in which the innocent pleasures and affective resonances of childhood are never really lost, a place where mothers and daughters can meet in an equal space of play, imaginative potential, and tenderness. 

Gentle and meditative, Petite Maman conveys a striking depth of feeling within its sparse script and crisp 73-minute runtime. After the death of her grandmother, young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) travels with her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to her grandmother’s rural cottage to clear it out. When Marion, burdened with grief, abruptly returns to the city, Nelly is left to explore the cottage and its surrounding woodlands, where she encounters a young girl who bears a striking resemblance to herself. 

Shot in the autumn of 2020 during the first wave COVID-19 pandemic, Petite Maman returns to the familiar ground of Cergy-Pontoise on the outskirts of Paris, where Sciamma grew up and which served as the setting for her debut feature Water Lilies (2007), and its successor Tomboy (2011). Positioned at the border between suburbia and the wild countryside, Cergy-Pontoise is the geographic manifestation of the delicate ambiguity that infuses Sciamma’s work. Characters drift through the liminal space between the familiar and the unknown, physically rendered in the striking visual contrasts of utopian 1960s concrete monuments and untamed, sprawling forests. Throughout her filmic canon, Sciamma has excelled at meticulously crafting alternate worlds within the world, spaces of queer adolescence and female agency, in which her protagonists, uninhibited by normative structures of patriarchal expectation and rigid gender norms, are able to explore new forms of intimacy, affection, and selfhood. Petite Maman is her most overtly supernatural work, yet Sciamma sacrifices none of her trademark emotional intensity for the film’s magical realism. There is something of Hayao Miyazaki—who Sciamma cites as a primary visual and narrative influence2 —in the subtlety of Petite Maman’s otherworldly elements, which never overshadow the emotional core of the film. This is a delicate fable of mothers and daughters, love and grief, firmly rooted in the expansive, imaginative world of children, where barriers between the real and the fantastical are porous and unfixed. 

Cinematographer Claire Mathon, who previously worked with Sciamma on Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), focuses on the play of light and shadow, capturing the rich autumnal hues of the forest as well as the crepuscular darkness around the empty cottage. Negotiating the recreation of natural light within the confines of a set was, as Mathon explains, “like writing a musical score”,3  each scene composed of a symphonic interplay between artificial lighting and gloomy daylight streaming through the cottage windows. Elements of Nelly and Marion’s costumes come directly from Sciamma’s own childhood wardrobe4, giving the film an added dimension of directorial presence that, in its tactile specificity, appeals to the almost mythical universality of childhood memories. 

Crossing spatio-temporal thresholds, Petite Maman adheres to a dialectic structure of folkloric, even gothic storytelling, but through her focus on the corporeal experiences of mothers and daughters, Sciamma subverts the conventional gloom of the genre in favour of gentle meditation. The home is not a haunted space of threat, nor do any terrifying monsters lurk in the woods. Petite Maman is instead concerned with the quiet burdens of grief and disability, and the complexity of familial love and care. Love is shown rather than told through moments of domestic tenderness: Nelly feeding her mother crisps from the backseat of the car, or smearing shaving cream on her father’s face, grinning and calling him handsome. Until her mother’s abrupt exit and Nelly’s subsequent magical shift to the past, mother and daughter are positioned in close but separated proximity; Nelly in the backseat, her mother in the front, or Nelly lying on the bed while her mother sits on the floor below. This choregraphed bodily opposition makes the final scene between adult Marion and Nelly sitting cross-legged on the floor beside each other all the more fulfilling. 

The gender subversion of Petite Maman is not as overt as Tomboy or even Girlhood (2014), evident instead in subtle moments of defiance against the dictate upon young girls to always be sweet, kind, well-behaved, and pretty. Nelly and Marion, dressed in boyish trousers and fleeces, haul massive branches around the forest to build their cabine and, back at home, slurp their chocolate milk and messily make pancakes together. The duo is completely independent, their world one of adventure and action, even when burdened with the spectres of physical disability and mental illness. 

More overt instances of gender queerness, specifically in Nelly, are met by the adults around her not with judgement but with kindness: in one scene, the girls act out a delightfully over-the-top murder mystery, with Nelly playing the role of the hard-boiled detective, complete with oversized suit jacket and slicked-back hair. Struggling with her tie, she asks her grandmother (Margo Abascal) for help; watching granddaughter and grandmother together, one has the impression that in Sciamma’s world, the time-loop goes back further, through many generations of mothers and daughters, a perpetual cycle of maternal tenderness. Perhaps the spaces of our childhood and those of our parents live forever in our memories, but Sciamma gives us a richer, more enticing possibility: the notion that if we follow the right path, round the tree-stump and through the woods, those spaces might just become real once more. 

Petite Maman (2021, France, 73 mins)

Prod co: Lilies Films, Canal+, Cine+, France 3 Cinéma Prod: Bénédicte Couvreur Dir: Céline Sciamma Scr: Céline Sciamma Pho: Claire Mathon Ed: Julien Lacheray

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascal


  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 6.
  2. Clinton Krute and Devika Girish, “Celine Sciamma on ‘Petite Maman’,” April 26 2022, in Film Comment Podcast, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-celine-sciamma-on-petite-maman/
  3. Claire Mathon, interviewed by Oliver Webb, “Q&A with DP Claire Mathon AFC about the spellbinding Petite Maman,”Cinematography World, published February 16, 2021, https://www.cinematography.world/qa-with-dp-claire-mathon-afc-about-the-spellbinding-petite-maman/
  4. Krute and Girish, op cit.

About The Author

Louise Cain is a writer and researcher based in Narrm currently completing a PhD thesis on contemporary queer French cinema.

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