Alastair MacRae finds Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman explores a world similar to that of Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbour Totoro.
Japanese anime master Miyazaki Hayao described his film My Neighbour Totoro as “a film that lets the audience go home with pleasant good feelings”. Céline Sciamma has cited Miyazaki as an inspiration for Petite Maman, her naturalistic fable and an ode to childhood, parenting and loss.
After the passing of her maternal grandmother, 8-year-old Nelly feels isolated from her own mother, Marion. Whilst clearing the memories of her childhood from her mother’s house, Marion attempts to conceal her grief, and then, during the night, leaves unexpectedly. Nelly is naturally disquieted. As her father packs up the remainder of the house, she ventures into the surrounding woodland. There she befriends another girl of the same age, whom Nelly discovers to be her mother as a child. Through conversation and play they explore their relationship and deal with their shared loss.
Petite Maman and My Neighbour Totoro share narrative similarities: starting with a car journey to an unfamiliar house, from which our child protagonists go on a fantastical adventure in the nearby woodland. Like Totoro’s protagonists, Mei and Satsuki, Nelly and Marion are shown as typical children in Petite Maman: curiously pushing at the edges of their world, asking questions, exploring new physical spaces and playing out imaginative scenarios. Most importantly, Sciamma and Miyazaki’s films share a love and understanding for their characters. They are filled with care and compassion; maps for how families and friends should be navigating complex or difficult emotions together.
Not unlike the father in Totoro, the minor role carved out for Nelly’s father shows him as loving and tender like his daughter. The two have fun together. In one intimate scene Nelly helps him shave, the kind of scene that would often occur in films featuring a father and son dynamic. Maybe as a sign of the boy becoming a man; a look into his future. Instead, it is an opportunity to be together, to study the other’s face, to see each other. This understated feminist portrayal of father as caregiver is different from the more strict approach of omitting men from the main body of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Less a shattering of the patriarchal influence, more a dissolution of gender roles.
When discussing Miyazaki in an interview for Sight and Sound, Sciamma states that she believes adults and children will watch her and her Japanese counterpart’s films in a similar shared "ageless" experience. She suggests that the narrative is universal as it is explored from a child’s height, but the waves of emotion will crest at different points depending on the viewer’s stage in life. Sciamma has emphasised frequently that this film is as accessible and rewarding for a child as any adult. This is a film for everyone.
Coming of age films are largely centered around times children are separated from their parents or family group, looking outward to find their place in the world. Sciamma looks deeper. Petite Maman is a fantastical adventure into the relationship between a parent and a child that unites them for the duration rather than separates them. Every second shared is a moment of heart-warming nourishment.
Petite Maman is screening at Eden Court until Thu 2 Dec.
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