French auteur Céline Sciamma loves a hearty tale of equals. In her fiery, multi-award-winning period romance Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, she told a story of two women in 18th Century France, embarking on a love affair on their own fiercely equal terms. Now with Petite Maman, a subtly magical film that reflects on grief and familial memories, she places a contemporary mother and daughter on opposite ends of a balanced scale as they get to know and appreciate one another. The twist? Both are 8-year-olds in Sciamma’s cozy fable that involves a time travel of sorts, albeit one without speeding DeLoreans or flux capacitors.
Identical twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz play the duo, with the former as young daughter Nelly, and the latter as her mother Marion. Together they navigate this mystic reality with ease, as Sciamma meditatively captures their spirited rhythms and rituals through a tender lens. Ahead of the release of Petite Maman, Sciamma spoke to The A.V. Club about her process of writing about and directing kids, her influences, and how she pulled off such a timeless film.
The A.V. Club: Going from Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a passionate period romance, to a story centered on kids might seem like a thematic departure for you at first. But I see it more as a return, given your work on Tomboy and the script of My Life As A Zucchini. What prompted this return?
Céline Sciamma: It’s true that I loved working with kids and telling kids’ stories. I had the opportunity to start cinema at a young age and I was kind of looking back and trying to talk about stuff I kind of knew. And now, going back to this felt really new. It’s really about cinema. Kids are great characters for [what] cinema wants to explore. All my films are about the character strongly gazing at the world in a survival mode.
And [with] kids, [there is] curiosity. Call it whatever you want: Awareness. Danger. I don’t know. But when they have this intense look, [there is a] tension that I love to explore. And regarding the language of cinema, I don’t feel it’s a departure at all. I really feel like it’s a film that I would have never made like that if I hadn’t done Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I benefited from a lot of confidence, generously handed [to me] by cinephile feminists and teenagers and everyone who felt seen by the film. I’m always trying to expand the politics of cinema that are manifesting in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.
AVC: Picking up on kids and curiosity: they observe and interpret a lot, significantly more than we give them credit for. And your lens almost gives them the permission to reflect those observations that we often choose not to see in the everyday.
CS: Yes. And that’s why I’m seeing and showing [these] kids with autonomy. Autonomy is the adventure for a kid. [Because normally], kids don’t have any. A kid never chooses what they’re doing with their time. And suddenly, you give [them] that opportunity. You share a kid’s loneliness, [and then consequently], you give the character and the actors autonomy also. It was kind of the first time that [Joséphine and Gabrielle] were doing all the things they were doing autonomously [in the movie]. Like lighting the [stove], pouring some milk. That’s the beauty of collaborating with kids. You just hand them a lot of autonomy and you just see how [they use] the opportunity to be their full self.
That means seduction. Not to give away their emotions. Not to just be their serious self—and my God, they are serious. So it’s a matter of letting that happen and working together. So when people [ask] me, “How do you write kids?” Well, by collaborating with kids. How serious they are keeps expanding in my head the more [I work with them]. I don’t have kids. So the relationship I have with them is basically this. I love working with them.
AVC: I kept thinking about the parent-child themed movies in which two sides get to understand each other either via body-swapping like in Freaky Friday, or time travel like in Back To The Future. But then these are all films about teenagers, and not 8-year-old children. Your idea is a unique one.
CS: Well, the idea of this troubling hierarchy of family and to bring equality between a mother and daughter—which is impossible—felt like a great ride for cinema. And philosophically, I was really interested in thinking about it this way: what is the opportunity for that equality? And that’s why the politics of this film is close to the politics of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. [In that film], I was trying to bring equality in [both] an artist-model relationship and a love story. So it’s kind of the same idea. When this idea came to my mind, it really felt like a mythological story. It didn’t feel like my story [only]. It felt like this has been told so many times. These matriarchal stories…they [have been] there and they will be there. For instance, if you look at Turning Red, it’s really, really close mythologically to Petite Maman. There is even like a common scene [in them] in a way.
And it’s exactly what I felt when this idea of a “mother-daughter relationship at the same age” hit me. It was like, “Oh. This is [mythological], and I’m going to tell it my way.” And my way of telling that myth is [asking] my personal question. And my personal question with that myth is: If I met my mother as a kid, would she be my sister? And would we share the same mother? That’s also why I cast sisters to play the parts; sisters born on the same day to fully extend this idea of equality between them. They meet exactly at the same moment of their lives. So in this magical situation, I [found] this idea very troubling and also very, very peaceful. And I really tried to bring unison to that contrast [instead of just] play on it.
AVC: I feel like that avoidance of emphasizing the contrast really shows. Petite Maman is such a fluid film. I can’t really pinpoint when it’s set. Or when exactly the time shifts happen. There are no hard markers or cut-offs. How did you achieve that timeless, organic quality in it?
CS: That was the biggest challenge. Because at the stage of writing, it felt super counterintuitive to [tell] a time-traveling [story] within a timeless film. There has to be some kind of presence so that you can elaborate when it’s the past and when it’s the future. And then I did the costume design of the film. I did this very early on. And I decided that they wouldn’t go for vintage, for instance. I would get clothes for the kids from 2020, but [things that also] could have been there in the ‘50s. So for instance, the shoes of little Marion: you could get them in 1955 and you can buy them today. And the DP, Claire Mathon, said we basically have to do that for everything. So it meant every [detail]. The house should embody 50 years of European interior design. And when you opened a cupboard, it should be filled [with things from] a cupboard today and that could have existed 50 years ago.
So it was about finding a common time and space from the ’50s (which is when my mother was a kid) and today, when kids could be watching this film. It’s like an investigation in the film and it helped [with the language]. We always had to remember it because we were always talking about time. And then the last decision that we took with Claire Mathon was that light would be the biggest continuity possible. So [it meant] no contrast. It really feels like a very, very long chronology when the light [is] really, really fluid. We shot all the exteriors first because of the light. And then we expanded it very, very accurately [to the interiors] in a studio. We could be very accurate.
AVC: For a film about sentimental topics such as familial memories, grief and childhood, I’m quite struck by how matter-of-fact Petite Maman feels. You are never spoon-feeding emotions to the audience. I was wondering if you could unpack this stylistic choice that works beautifully in the film.
CS: With kids, I never [talk about emotion]. For instance, with Joséphine and Gabrielle, I was never talking about it. I was never saying, “You’re sad. You’re happy.” I was all about cinematic emotions. Which means, “People are going to be scared. People are wondering if she’s your mother.” So it’s always about you [the audience]. We were always talking about the emotions of people watching. So that’s why the film [feels that way]. The characters are very discreet in a way with their emotions. Because it’s all about yours, about the emotions of the person watching.
And this is also something that I’ve been thinking more and more radically. Because I was working with kids, it had to be the safest set possible. That they would not be robbed of anything that they wouldn’t want to give. So it’s also a way to protect them. And I think that’s why they give such great performances. There is one time where I’ve seen an emotion that I think [Joséphine] gave. And I think everyone cries at this moment when it comes. I won’t say where it is. But I really try to craft the emotional journey of the real person watching it, and not thinking about the emotional journey of the character.