Céline Sciamma about 'Petite Maman': 'Remembering is very sensory'

We’ve only just sat down, and I ask French filmmaker Céline Sciamma a preliminary question about where the idea for her new film Little mom comes from, or she immediately reveals the secret of the film, this will be an interview full of spoilers.

Sciamma is a welcome director in the Netherlands, especially after the success of her previous film Portrait of the girl on fire, so she took the train from Paris to attend some of the previews. Sciamma likes to talk about the ideas behind this new movie, which she got the idea for when she saw the muse-model-mistress-costume drama Portrait was writing, but which she was only able to make during the first Covid lockdown. “The idea for the film hit me like a thunderclap. I envisioned a scene where two eight-year-old girls were building a forest cabin together and it was immediately clear that one was the mother and the other the daughter, even though they are the same age. It was both poetic and disturbing, radical and magical, like a fairy tale. I immediately knew I had got something, it was theoretical and sensual at the same time.”

At first she thought it might be a cartoon, but she quickly pushed that idea aside, because “it’s a story of flesh and blood, about presence, about bodies, and how our bodies from when we were eight years old are still our own. to be. Not about the past, but real living cinema.” She kept thinking about this image in the back of her mind, and how that ‘high concept’, the philosophical questions that came with it, could become a story. “I wondered what it would mean if I met my mother when she was a child. Is she my mother? Am I a mother? Is she my sister? Am I falling in love with her? Do we have the same mother?”

From there, the idea of ​​a time travel film without a time machine arose. “A time travel film that takes place out of time in a certain way, because it is not set in a specific time.” The pandemic made the subject of the film all the more urgent for her. Themes such as intergenerational mourning, children losing someone from the generation above them, that people were clearing houses everywhere, began to crystallize. And then it went fast. She wrote the screenplay in July 2020, she was shooting in October.

In the meantime, the house and the forest hut were built, which in the time travel film without a time machine at least have the function of passage to another time. Sciamma: „When you return to a house you have been to as a child, it is not the memories that transport you to the past, but the smell, the sound of the door. Remembering is very sensory.”

The film is full of playful doublings and mirror effects. Although the house dates from two different periods, the interior was not adapted, and Sciamma and her camera person Claire Mathon devised a lighting plan that was the same in all scenes, so that as a spectator you can never be quite sure whether you are in the present or the past. , whether the girls are really together, and in which of the two times.

Read the review of ‘Petite Maman’

Just like in Portrait Sciamma was also interested in non-hierarchical relationships between people in this film: „This is a film, a drama, without conflict. For me it’s about equality – what is a family dialogue that is equal? – about a horizontal genealogy. Even before Nelly meets the young Marion, she is already a little mother. And it’s about the fluidity of time and continuity of our childhood. Why do we think our childhood is a thing of the past? That children should always be dominated by adults?”

For Sciamma, her film has layers of philosophical, psychological and mythological meaning. “All therapies are based on ancient fictions. We continue to analyze, understand, heal ourselves through the myth of rivalry – oh I want to kill my father and fuck my mother, that’s it. What would happen if we made up new myths? What if we re-evaluated a concept like sisterhood between generations? Our mothers and grandmothers would meet politics, and understand that they didn’t have the same opportunities as we did, and that’s where a lot of grief comes from.”

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