How Petite Maman director Céline Sciamma crafted her wondrous time-travel fairy tale

How Petite Maman director Céline Sciamma crafted her wondrous time-travel fairy tale
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Petite Maman may be small in scale, but its themes loom large.

After directing the acclaimed romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French auteur Céline Sciamma returns with a fairy-tale follow-up, a wondrous, moving fable about mothers and daughters. At just 72 minutes, the film itself might seem deceptively simple, following 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as she helps her parents clean out her late grandmother's house. While exploring the forest nearby, she encounters a young girl named Marion (played by Joséphine's twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz), who's building a fort out of leaves and branches. The two girls strike up an immediate friendship, wandering the woods together, finishing the fort, and staging elaborate plays for their own amusement.

But Nelly soon realizes (as does the audience) that she and her new friend share an unexpected connection. The two girls are practically doppelgängers, and the house where Marion lives with her mother looks a lot like Nelly's grandmother's house. Plus there's the small fact that Marion shares a name with Nelly's mom — and it isn't long before Nelly recognizes her new playmate is the 8-year-old version of her own mother, inexplicably transported through the decades.

After the lavish historical love story of Lady on Fire, Petite Maman could seem like an unexpected next step, but it's filled with the kind of big ideas about gender and age that Sciamma has built her career on. The result is a gorgeous, meditative tale about grief and growing up, and it lingers long after the film's brief runtime ends.

With Petite Maman now in U.S. theaters, EW caught up with Sciamma to talk about bringing her tiny fairy tale to the big screen.

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in 'Petite Maman'
Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in 'Petite Maman'

NEON Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in 'Petite Maman'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've said that you didn't really set out to make a time-travel movie. When did you realize this was the story you wanted to tell?

CELINE SCIAMMA: The story hit me very simply a few years ago, in 2017, when I was writing Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It felt like the idea was very simple: It was just a little girl hanging with her mom at the same age. I didn't see it at all as a time-traveling film. I started writing it really easily, not thinking about the time paradox, how she gets there, all the usual stuff. Then at some point, I was like: "It's a time-travel film. What am I going to do with that? Do I want that?"

Generationally, I'm a Back to the Future kid, so I love the canon. I know about the canon. I want to compete in the narrative of the canon. So I just thought about time-traveling and how this film could belong [to the canon], without going through what is expected of this narrative.

If you ask people where they would go if they had a time-traveling machine, very few people are going to go into the future, especially now. They're very specific: Everyone's either doing tourism in the past or activism in the past, but no one's saying, "Oh, I'm going to see my grandma when she's 4 years old." I thought, that's going to be my contribution to the time-traveling narrative — intimate, emotional time travel, so maybe the next time someone gets asked that question [they answer], "I would go see my father and build a tree house."

This story plays with time, but it also feels very timeless in its setting. It feels like it could be set in any year, especially with the costumes and the production design. Why was it important for you for this story to feel out of time?

That was the biggest decision, because that was the most contrary. Usually if you travel through time, there's the present, the past, and the future. But I really wanted to work on a common space in time between the film and the people watching the film — which means I wanted a kid from the '50s, like my mother, and a kid from 2020 to feel connected to the film. [I started] with the costume design, which I do myself, and that gave us the idea that we then decided to expand to every layer of the film.

There had to be continuity, and everything on the set would have to be an option in 1950 and an option in 2020. They had to exist in both timelines: the plugs, the sockets, everything. That's also because I wanted the film to be playing like a myth. It's a new mythology. When I wrote the story I felt like, this is not my story. This has been told several times, and it will be told [again]. It must be from a wider mythology. It's like Turning Red. Have you seen it?

Yes! It's so great, and it has a similar idea about mothers and daughters meeting face-to-face as children.

That's common mythology, right? That's what happens when a lot of women speak at the same time. It's a crazy film, an amazing film, a beautiful film. I love it. I've watched it three times already. I thought, when did they start writing this? It wasn't competition around ideas or whatever, it was mostly about being enthusiastic. It's such a relief not to be alone. Who wants to be first? No one. I don't want to be the first of anything. I want to be with others.

But yeah, I wanted both the adults and the kids watching the film to feel equally respected, that it was both their time.

Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma

Claire Mathon Céline Sciamma

Nelly and Marion are played by real-life sisters, Jósephine and Gabrielle Sanz. Did they influence this story at all?

If they didn't understand a sentence or an idea, then it disappeared. There was one sentence where I could feel that they didn't get the idea, for instance, and I got rid of that. It was when they're on the bed, and the little mom is saying, "Do I want you?" "Yes, you wanted me. "I'm not surprised. I'm already thinking about you." Then there was another line where she was saying to Nelly, "Do people ask you already when you will have kids?" and she said yes.

I really liked this idea, but I could see that they weren't connecting to it. As a kid, I felt pressured [to have kids]. I remember being told that. But it means that they weren't, and you know what? Good for them. Good for that generation. I don't know, maybe it's because of climate anxiety. But they don't have that absolute pressure on their shoulder, pressuring them to imagine themselves as parents.

I think the beauty of having a script full of ideas that are carefully outlined so that everyone can see them is that there's no hidden agenda. It was really about making these ideas together, so they would be fully in charge of these ideas as much as I was. One of my questions in the film was: If I met my mother as a kid, would she feel like my sister? That's why I picked sisters. They know about that, so of course they're going to play with this idea. As long as you share all the info, then you benefit from their opinions as artists.

This film deals with heavy themes like death and grief, but it's also so warm and filled with laughter. What was it that ultimately made you want to tell this story of hope and connection?

Well, the whole film is like a daydream. The big what-if in the film is whether this happens or not for real, but the impact is the same, whether it has happened or not. Understanding someone is incredibly powerful, I think. It's great emotion, understanding someone. The film is breaking the hierarchy of family, making a mother and a daughter equal. What can we learn from that mythological situation? We've been understanding ourselves and challenging ourselves and even healing ourselves through fiction. I wanted to bring to life a fiction of true grief, which means some form of peace. That could be useful.

Whatever your relationship is with your parents, whether they're dead or alive, there's room for your story in the film. I have a friend who told me, "Now whenever I'm in a bad moment with my father, I imagine the two of us building a tree house together and I feel better." That's how this was designed. This film might be small, and it's very immodest in a way, but I think fairy tales often are. Mythology is very, very modest.

Much of this film takes place in the forest, and I know when I was a kid there was something that felt so magical about being in the woods, surrounded by trees like that. What was it about the forest that you found intriguing?

I think I like the forest because I was also a tomboy. I grew up in that forest, so there's something for me linked to that type of nature. But I think it's also very common, and that might be why [forests] are so common in fairy tales, because it's a very democratic idea. Everyone knows about the trees. Not everyone knows about the mountains and the sands and the sea. It's a very democratic landscape for fiction. Also, I was really inspired by [Studio Ghibli founder Hayao] Miyazaki's work and the treatment of nature in those films.

You made Petite Maman after Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which became such a global success. Is there something you feel like you learned from making that film?

Something I learned was that the people's feedback I received — from cinephiles, feminists, activists, teenagers — really connected me strongly to what I am. I believe that cinema can have a transformative impact individually and collectively, and that's a beautiful thing to experience. It gave me the confidence to do this short film — and to be playful.

You filmed this during the pandemic. What was your most memorable day on set?

I think the moment I was most impressed by was with Jósephine, who plays Nelly. I told her it was a simple scene, but she had to wake up in her grandmother's bed and walk to the bedroom and interact with her father. It's a tracking shot, and it's all about groove. We had been shooting for five days on that set, and the beauty of designing a set is that it's not just visual, but you also design the rhythm of the room because the length of the corridor is designed for that tracking shot to go at that pace and follow that kid for that many steps.

She had been walking in this flat for several days, and we had been understanding the rhythm. For that sequence she said, "Yeah, yeah, I got this." I didn't have to give her the rhythm or do [multiple] takes. She just woke up and did this thing in the groove of the film. It just felt like one of my greatest working moments. It's hard to explain, but it was just like, okay, now we speak the same language. This 9-year-old and this 43-year-old, making something together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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