The French writer/director's story of a mother-daughter meeting across time will melt the hardest heart. She speaks to Fiona Williams about how the pandemic inspired her to make it, and how casting twin sisters created the spark on screen.
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2 May 2022 - 8:40 AM  UPDATED 2 May 2022 - 6:11 PM

Céline Sciamma makes a haunting and hopeful fairytale for the ages, from the story of an eight year-old making her own sense of the loss of her beloved granny. As her family strains under the sad task of clearing a house of generations of memories, little Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) wanders into the woods and makes a new, though oddly familiar, friend in Marion (played by Sanz's real-life twin, Gabrielle). The cheeky lookalikes get along like a house on fire, and their shared experiences of (very) similar life moments sets them up on a path to greater understanding of family, and how to cope with the Big Things that life throws at you. A wonderful film made under the sign of Miyazaki, with a joyously chaotic pancake-making scene, to boot.  

For some, Petite Maman may be an unlikely follow-up to her momentous and sexy Portrait Of A Lady on Fire,  but Sciamma writes stories of childhood and adolescence like few working today, as evident in Girlhood, Tomboy and her scripts for Being 17 and My LIfe As A Zucchini.  

I spoke to Sciamma over Zoom about her knack for writing from a kids' perspective, and how she came at the simple sci-fi of her central conceit. 

 

 

Congratulations on your beautiful film. It warmed my little orphan heart, I have to tell you.

Oh, thank you.

 

How long has this film been bubbling away inside you? And what made it the right time to make?

Well, that's a good question, because it's a film that's been that I've been building of for a very long time. I had the idea when I was in the process of writing Portrait of A Lady on Fire. So that was like end of 2016 or 2017. At the time I was struggling with writing the film and this idea popped up into my mind and it felt really attractive, really simple. The script seemed to unravel really easily in my mind, and it was such a contrast. I thought, 'Oh, maybe that's the film I should do'. There was such promise in it. I don't know that making a film can be a safe space [laughs], but I felt like, ‘Oh, this will be where I land and I want to show this story, but I can tell it any time’.

But then the pandemic started and suddenly there was a new rush, a new urgency to make the film that I didn't expect, because I felt like this is an eternal fairy tale, I could tell it whatever I want. But suddenly we were hit with collective goodbyes. We couldn't do individual goodbyes, we couldn't visit houses. We had kids facing death and loss. The had felt intemporal, but suddenly it felt really, really needed. So that's why I hurried up and decided to really write it really fast and shoot it pretty fast, so that it would be out in the world because you need it in a way?

"It's really easy to write kids if you decide to take them seriously."

 

We sure do, thank you. And you know, you've returned to that kid's eye view, that perspective of childhood, that you’ve done before. Does it come easily, writing that child's eye and voice?  In particular, showing how kids ask Big questions in such blunt ways…

Well, I just try to build kid characters as giving them full range and just take them seriously. I'm pretty sure kids know they're asking Big questions. They know the questions are big and yes, they are blunt but they’re also very careful, in the way they ask them. It's really not that hard [to write that]. You know, I was thinking, in writing the film, I want to give everyone their (own) kid body and kid brain back because still it's there. We are the same person we were then, and I wanted to bring that continuity into it again. That's how we heal ourselves as individuals rather than say that childhood is the past. It's like we can see the kids we were; even with strangers, you know? For me. childhood doesn't seem like a lost territory. You shouldn't have to have trouble reimagining or resetting or redesigning. It's really easy to write kids if you decide to take them seriously, I think.

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To celebrate the release of Petite Maman in cinemas on 5th May, SBS and Madman are giving you a chance to win one of 20 double passes to see the film. Competition is now CLOSED
 

And on the central conceit, there's time travel sort of , but it's not sci-fi. There are no gadgets, no Back To The Future-type business. But do you see it as time travel? How do you describe it?

You know, at first I didn't at all think about the film as time travel, beyond the high concept of a kid hanging out with her mother during a few days, and they are the same age. I didn't think, 'Oh, that's a time travelling film’. But in the process of writing it. I was like, 'Ooh, but that is a time travelling film! Does that mean that I have to find a time travelling machine? Does it mean that I have to set it in a particular time?' So I decided that yes, it was a time travelling film, but it doesn't mean that those rules are preset. I mean they are, they are forged and also generationally forged; I'm 44, so I'm a kid from Back To The Future. So the time paradox consequences, I know we know all about even you know Groundhog Day.

We know all about harvesting high concepts around the situation. So how would I harvest mine? Maybe by putting away all this dramatic tension about going back, about what's the wind, air, what's going to change? And just building a time machine to share the present time. So that was my thing. It's a time machine that gives you some form of present with someone else. And that's also why the film is intemporal. I mean, I want a kid from 2021 to think ‘This is my childhood’ and a kid from 1955 thinking ‘This could also be my childhood’.

 

You certainly don't date it in any way. It just it is. And I love the casting of the twin sisters. In all the best and worst ways, how did that can play out?!

[Laughs]

 

I mean, that pancake scene looks hectic! That would have been such fun to shoot.

Oh, yeah.

 

It’s so wonderfully warm and intimate… and chaotic.

Ha, the pancake scene is really the scene they wrote, for sure. I mean, there was a recipe, the recipe for pancakes, but it's a big moment. And you know, they really they could do whatever they wanted. And it's a moment where we access their intimacy, and they gave that to the film. And I find it really, really beautiful.

And, you know, that was the idea in casting sisters. It was also, giving them safety because, you know, when you're working with kids, you want to get a real safe space for them to work. And the fact that they could rely on each other and on the trust they have in each other, it means like they could rely on their intimacy to take the chance of meeting again on screen. Because it's not about stealing their intimacy. This is all very rich and there is no improv. They have lines, characters. So it's really about this idea of giving them a safe space to actually play, perform characters.

Also, that was my personal question when I was writing the film: If I met my mother as a kid would she be my sister?  Would we share the same mother? And I decided not to ask that personal question in the film and just embody it into this idea of casting. Because this idea of a child meeting a parent at the same age, it's really about bringing equality between the mother and the daughter. And the fact that they were {played by] sisters born on the same day, made it , you know, obvious for the audience that they were actually meeting at the exact same time of their life, the exact same time of their lives. And that's, you know, that's the beauty of their duo and the proposal they were really looking at each other in the eye and we are all looking at that.

 

In your films we observe a specific slice of time. You know, you're not doing 'cradle to grave' biopics or anything. We simply dive into a week, a month in the life of characters. Is there anything in this tendency to sort of duck into a moment of time rather than telling a broader tale?

Hmm, well, I think it's due to the opportunities we have in life. You know, I think films should be inspiring. They should be inspiring about how can we feel better or be better. And I think the opportunity we have, we all have is always in the space of a few days. There’s fuel to transform ourselves. There’s opportunity to transform ourselves everywhere. And I find I can connect to that. And I think, you know, it's naturalistic heroism to look at a holidays encounter you didn't expect and that won’t last. I think that's the adventure in our life to take these forms, and I don't know, I never thought about it. That's a very good question! But that's my answer so far.

 

…And so now you'll go and do a big biopic and make a liar out of me

[Laughs!] Ha, yes, I will have to.

 

Petite Maman is now in release around Australia through Madman Films.