Petite Maman
Directed by Céline Sciamma

We’ve become conditioned to equate a film’s runtime with its greatness. Movies that push beyond two-and-a-half, three hours must be important — clearly their artistry requires such length. But although there are plenty of pictures that justify their formidable running times, it would be a mistake to consider a compact film to be insubstantial by comparison.

Petite Maman is 72 minutes, a short story with the weight of a masterpiece — one that, ironically, is about how fleeting time is. Conceived and shot during the pandemic, writer-director Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature crafts an intimate story about mothers and daughters, continuing her career-long interest in the relationship between women when they’re away from the world’s glaring eyes.

As the film begins, the 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her sainted grandmother, a blow that’s even more affecting her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), who can’t bear the thought of being without her. But while her parents pack up her grandmother’s house, Nelly goes out to the woods, encountering another young girl (Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle), who says her name is Marion. These two seem to know one another, even though they’ve never met.

A gem whose gentle, cosmic twists shouldn’t be spoiled, Petite Maman is a lyrical examination of our universal desire to connect with our parents — to understand them as people, not just as our guardians. But it’s also an acknowledgment that we can live only in the moment we’re in — except for Nelly, who will get a wish magically granted.

Grief and melancholy suffuse this movie, but also love and understanding. “It’s not how long the film lasts, it’s how long the impact of the film lasts,” Sciamma has said. You want Petite Maman to go on forever, but it doesn’t need to — it’s perfect as it is.

— Tim Grierson