Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 06, 2022 7:18 am 
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Down the rabbit hole

Petite Maman has inspired rapturous English-language reviews from critics who seem to be still entranced by Céline Sciamma's previous big hit, Portrait of a Woman on Fire. Rarely are her earlier films mentioned, which have much more in common with this present effort which, however, takes a strange new turn toward meta-realism or magic realism - a turn on which this writer, alas, was unable to follow. We follow an eight-year-old girl who, while on a sort of forced Montessori child vacation (all on her own) as her parents clear out her deceased grandma's house, all of a sudden meets her twin, and it turns out to be her mother ("Petite maman" in a creepily literal sense). To go along willingly on this strange journey requires a fascination with precocious, slightly smug little (French) girls that some of us (including this "we") may lack. This very talented and original filmmaker has produced a strange, hushed bore, much of which makes no real sense. It would seem that a part of Céline Sciamma would like every woman to turn into a sweet, smart, winsome eight-year-old, preferably a twin. This very short movie feels at times interminable. In the fascination with same-sex childhood I was reminded of the strange and wonderful French photographer Bernard Faucon. But his love is always and forever boys.

Looking back on Sciamma's distinguished and distinctive career so far, this divagation has a certain artistic logic about it. Last time's Portrait (not a favorite of mine) certainly explores the past, as this one does in a more modest and contemporary way. But more germane are her first two films. Water Lilies (2007) is a hushed, quiet story about teenage girls who are in a synchronized water ballet team, though the main character only wants to be. How subtle this was became clearer several years later when a similar treatment came from Sweden, She Monkeys (Lisa Aschan 2011), also about a teenage girls athletic team. The Water Lilies lead was already Adèle Haenel, the soon-to-be French out lesbian superstar who was or was to become Sciamma's life partner, emphasized by Haenel's public coming out at the César awards.

Even more cool and distinctive was Sciamma's 2011 Tomboy (one remembers vividly the original title, emblazoned with its distinctive poster on the OGC cinema, Place Odéan, Paris) because this one is about a little girl like Nelly in Petite Maman, only she wants to be a little boy, and fashions a little boy penis of clay to fake it in her swimming trunks. Boldness and subtlety.

Other Sciamma memories are less vivid, but after that she pretty quickly became important, ranging wider while staying in the same place with 2014's Girlhood, a movie about formidable young women of color in the Paris banlieue. Sisters forever! Thus Sciamma embraced and explored the world of women. It was an inevitable twist for this inventive filmmaker to turn to the historical, so Adèle Haenel could be formidable in costume. And Sciamma has been amazing as a wrier, not only in Swiss directdor Claude Barras' 2016 stop-motion exploration of lives of challenged foster kids My Life As a Courgette but more touchingly and beautifully in André Téchiné's (same year) gay coming of age film Being 17, a return to form for the director and a career best (and seamless collaboration). And recently she collaborated with Jacques Audiard, no less, with a sort of return to the Banlieu scripting young heterosexual romps in Paris, 13th District.

The girls-on-girls focus, the interest in various kinds of formidable ones, has led in Petite Maman to a return to the very young. It is some time before Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) meets her semblable Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Before that we have seen her help out on an adult crossword puzzle, and feed her mom an apéro (afternoon snack) of chips and soda as mom's driving and she's riding behind. And we've experienced her precocious, hushed grown-up-ness in many ways. I wish that something more human and more real had happened later, that the girl Nelly meets building a fort of vines hadn't been her twin. Sciamma unintentionally turns a tale of young girlhood into an almost-horror movie that makes no rational sense. I don't think the audience is as entranced as the critics.

The exquisite sensitivity to girlhood this time seems in search of meaningfulness, and searches too hard. Things go distinctively south when Nelly and Marion, for one more fun thing before one of them goes off for a scary unspecified surgery, lug a big inflatable raft down to the river (what adult would allow that to happen?) and the hitherto score-less movie is invaded by annoyingly loud pop music. But everything has ceased making sense well before that.

I don't know why the (adult) "maman" (Nina Meurisse) has to be off-putting and odd. The dad is odd-looking too but in a more appealing way, and he's "de la Comédie Française." (Stéphane Varupenne). Of course the Sanz sisters play well together and are delightful and sweet in their way. This is an exquisite, stifling, and inexplicable work. No doubt Céline will do many great things "going forward."

Petite Maman, 73 mins., after an early preview opening in Paris, debuted later in June 2021 at the Berlinale and subsequently showed in 42 other (IMDb-listed) festivals, including Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Telluride, and New York, in the rest of 2021. Limited US release was Apr. 22, 2022. AlloCiné (French) press rating 3.6 (72%). Metascore 93%. Screened for this review with four other masked people at Landmark Shattuck May 5,2022. (This largest of the Landmark Theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area closed permanently a month later - a terrible local loss for fans of art and foreign films.)

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