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Screenwriter and director Céline Sciamma melds the everyday and the miraculous in her latest feature, Petite Maman. By Philippa Hawker.

Filmmaker Céline Sciamma

Filmmaker Céline Sciamma.
Filmmaker Céline Sciamma.
Credit: Claire Mathon

There is a kind of alchemy to Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature, Petite Maman, her first film after her international hit, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Something apparently simple is transformed into a mixture of the miraculous and the matter-of-fact.

Sciamma talks about the idea behind the work as “an ancient fairytale”, but it has very immediate ramifications. “I realised at a certain point that it was a time-travel film,” she says. “But it’s really about the present. About sharing a piece of time together.”

Out in cinemas this week, Petite Maman is a delicate yet robust film that’s full of possibilities, an exploration of childhood, time, curiosity, grief and the push and pull of generational connection.

An eight-year-old girl, Nelly, is quietly coming to terms with the death of her beloved maternal grandmother. She and her mother drive to the grandmother’s house to help pack up its contents. Nelly is fascinated by the objects and experiences the house contains.

Playing in the woods nearby, Nelly meets another girl with whom she seems to have much in common. This child – who has the same name as her mother, Marion – is building a fort out of branches, just as her mother used to do when she was young. Visiting Marion’s house deepens but also clarifies the mystery: Nelly is meeting her mother when she was a child of the same age.

The pair are played by twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. The film turns on how the two children interact as they explore the implications of their encounter and play together – everything from making pancakes to acting out an elaborate detective story in which they take every role.

Sciamma has very clear ideas about working with children. She regards them as collaborators in the filmmaking process. Her young performers are well aware of what is happening on the set as well as how the film is being made.

“They are very carefully directed in cinema,” she says. “I’m never talking to them about their own emotions or the emotions that the characters are supposed to feel. It’s not Actors Studio for kids.” She speaks to them about rhythm or the idea that this particular part of a film is a bit like a spy movie, and tells them how she wants to stage a scene. She says they pick it up remarkably quickly.

“You see a kid learning how to walk and talk in front of a camera, and then after a few days they start speaking the language of the film, which means you can say, ‘You’re going to wake up, and very slowly. I want you to count to 12 in your head before you open your eyes.’ And then at some point you don’t have to talk about rhythm anymore. That’s how much we share. We share building a language together.”

She wants them to understand what’s going on in the life of the characters, nevertheless. “Even if the film is a little bit complex, it was very easy to share ideas with them,” she says. “I wouldn’t hide anything from them.” She’s thinking in particular of Nelly’s mother and her state of mind. “The fact that the mother is so sad is not something I’m just going to put under the carpet.”

At first, Sciamma thought that Petite Maman could be an animation. She had worked in the form before. She wrote the screenplay for an animated film, My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette), a 2016 stop-motion feature based on a French novel. It is a story about a boy who is sent to an orphanage after the death of his mother. A story of loss and renewal, it’s an affecting yet unsentimental tale of children in isolated circumstances looking after each other.

Sciamma is a great admirer of the animated films of Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli and of its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. He embodies qualities she admires: “Such groundbreaking cinema, with experimental narratives, both for adults and kids, that respect them equally.”

Another influence she mentions is the late Chantal Akerman. Sciamma loves Akerman’s “frontalité”, the particular quality of her cinematic gaze. “I wouldn’t dare to say what we share, because she’s not here to say we share it, but in my dream, that’s what we share: the love of frontality, of looking at things directly. And I always think about her – not because it’s necessarily in there, but because I want her to be in there.”

With Petite Maman, Sciamma occasionally asked herself how Miyazaki would solve a particular design or narrative problem: how to shoot the house, for example. What was most important, she says, however, was that invoking Miyazaki gave her courage. “Thinking about directors, for me, is not thinking about their image or their style or their references. Being inspiring is not about colour-grading, or whatever. It’s about the courage to make things the way they did.”

Her first image of Petite Maman was of two little girls building the fort out of branches – something Sciamma did as a child. “It hit me as something simple and also complex, and I thought, I will try to be modest with this high concept.” She had to put it on hold for a while because she was writing another screenplay. Finally, in the wake of Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s success, she carved out some time to start work on Petite Maman. In a time of Covid-19, the small scale of this film turned out to be something of a blessing.

The grandmother’s house is a studio set, painstakingly created and designed for the shoot. Sciamma envisaged it as a combination of features from homes that belonged to both sets of her own grandparents. In the film, what turns out to be a hybrid space has a timeless quality that could be part of more than one era.

The exteriors were shot where she grew up, in Cergy-Pontoise. A new town on the north-west outskirts of Paris that was developed in the 1960s, it’s where she also made her first feature, Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres).

“I chose it because I know it,” she says. “And if I know it, I can transform it.” She decided to set events in autumn – “I’m an autumn child” – for the look and the associations. “There’s morbidity, because it’s nature dying, but it’s so rich in colour.”

Sciamma, 43, spent most of her childhood in Cergy-Pontoise with her younger sister and brother and some of their childhood games and activities found their way into Petite Maman. She studied French literature at Paris Nanterre, then went to La Fémis film school to study screenwriting. Water Lilies was her graduation screenplay. She hadn’t planned to direct it, but one of her teachers encouraged her to make it herself.

Water Lilies focuses on three adolescent girls with contrasting experiences of longing and desire, each isolated for very different reasons. The world of synchronised swimming – a female-centred sport with particular rituals, disciplines and performance styles – is the source of imagery and desire.

Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy, in 2011, helped to clarify her approach to working with young actors. Two siblings, Laure and Jeanne, aged 10 and six, have moved to a new neighbourhood. The older one, Laure (Zoé Héran) – long-limbed, short-haired, a little shy – goes out to meet the neighbourhood kids. “What’s your name?” asks Lisa, a poised and curious girl of a similar age. There’s a momentary pause, then Laure tells her, “My name is Mickael.”

From that point, “Mickael” explores what it is to play football and truth or dare, to wrestle and swagger with the boys of the neighbourhood and to befriend Lisa. Tomboy is an acute depiction of ambiguity and fluidity and it’s an observant take on how children play, registering how exuberant, careless, occasionally cruel and unexpectedly non-judgemental they can be.

In between making her own films, Sciamma has worked on several screenplays for other directors, including Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) for Jacques Audiard and Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans) for André Téchiné. In an interview about their collaboration, Sciamma and Téchiné discussed the process. She talked about their compatibility, saying, “maybe we are both deeply melancholic characters, but we always try to gravitate towards joy”. He paid tribute to “the purity of line” she brought to the screenplay, as well as a sense of concentration and cohesion.

Her third feature, Girlhood (Bande de filles), about young Black women in the Paris suburbs, was released in 2014 and was a hit in France and worldwide. She followed this in 2019 with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film that moved beyond the coming-of-age aspects – whether in childhood, adolescence or post-adolescence – that had marked the earlier work. It is a period piece and a love story, a brilliant, sensuous, rigorous film: a tale of art, desire, storytelling, and the gaze, focusing on the relationship between two women, a portrait painter and her subject. Sciamma felt that she was defying expectations in certain ways with the film. Traditionally in cinema, she says, “the lesbian love stories are always painful, punished and they don’t exist, and we need to say that they exist, and to look at this love in its possibility, rather than when it’s an impossibility”.

The film reunited her with Adèle Haenel, the remarkable actor who had starred in Sciamma’s first feature. Post-Water Lilies, they were in a relationship for several years. It ended before the filming of Portrait, but they remain close friends. The role of Héloïse, the painter’s subject, was written for Haenel.

Over the course of five films, Sciamma has maintained consistent working relationships with key collaborators. Cinematographer Crystel Fournier shot the first three features; Claire Mathon shot Portrait and Petite Maman. All have been made with producer Bénédicte Couvreur, editor Julien Lacheray and casting director Christel Baras. Another constant is electronic music producer and composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, also known as Para One.

An aspect Sciamma likes to take care of herself is costume design, although for Portrait of a Lady on Fire – as it is a period film – she needed the services of designer Dorothée Guiraud.

Music, used judiciously, has a particular importance to her. “It is also a special effect,” she says. Petite Maman is no exception; there’s a memorable scene that draws on the intimacy and transcendence of a shared musical experience, something that in very different contexts is part of all her films.

There’s a resolutely handmade and tactile quality about Petite Maman, something that’s consistent with Sciamma’s overall approach. When it came to the idea of depicting a night-time fear, a monster at the end of the bed, she says she drew on recollections of “my own childhood monster, a black panther, standing up and walking”.

The panther’s appearance in the film is fleeting, deliberately low-key, created out of light and shadow. But it took a long time to work out how to shoot it, she recalls. “It’s a central question, how do you show a monster?” she says. In the solution that she, Mathon and her design and props team came up with, simplicity was vital, but equally important is a sense of the real, the visible. “It was made by nature, it’s made by light, it’s not something coming from your head, it’s coming from what you see ... I wanted it to feel human too, because for some kids there are real monsters. It’s not always about the lighting.”

Although she doesn’t think of Petite Maman as a time-travel film, she knew it had to have some kind of internal logic. One thing she knew for sure: she was not interested in exploring disbelief or scepticism in any of her characters. The wonder of the experience that Nelly and Marion share is swiftly and easily accepted. That was important, Sciamma says. “In the politics of writing in 2021, I really wanted to write characters who believe each other.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Enchanted childhoods".

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Philippa Hawker writes on film and is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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