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In 'Petite Maman,' a young girl tries to understand her mother


In Celine Sciamma's new movie, "Petite Maman," 8-year-old Nelly loses her grandmother. And as her parents pack up the house in which her grandmother lived, Nelly makes a playmate in the woods - a girl named Marion, also her mother's name, who looks exactly like her and lives in a home that seems exactly like her grandmother's. The friendship grows, and the story turns into a fable about family connections, holding tight and letting go. Celine Sciamma, the screenwriter and director of many films, including the award-winning "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," joins us from Paris.

Thank you so much for being with us.

CELINE SCIAMMA: Hi. Thank you. You pitch it so well. I want you to tell the whole story (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, well, it would be my pleasure. I enjoyed the whole story. I want the joy of discovery to be there for people who see this film. But let me also state this is a kind of time travel movie but with no special effects, except maybe in the heart.

SCIAMMA: Yeah, it's true. It's a time traveling film, but there's no time traveling machine. The film is the time traveling machine. The film is creating a common space and time. That is an opportunity for two people who know each other very well but were not supposed to meet in this shape at that time to make the most out of this time. So it's also a story of equality between a mother and a daughter, which is one of the opportunity given by this crazy little situation.

SIMON: Yeah. I have felt for some time, I think particularly as I grew up and then grew older, that I wish I'd known my parents when they were younger. And this was just a wonderful opportunity, not just in this film, but in the kind of real life you portray. It helps us see our parents in entirely more complicated and real ways, doesn't it?

SCIAMMA: Yeah. I remember the first time that I realized that my dad was a kid, for instance. I remember he found an old box in my grandmother's place, and there were drawings in it. And there was a drawing he made when he was, like, 6, which felt like prehistorical time. And there's a scene like that in the film where she looks at the drawings from her mother's, like, archives, like proof. It's like a proof that they were kids. And it was kind of a - it was really emotional to actually embody this fantasy, this idea.

SIMON: Yeah. Could you tell us, please, about the two real-life twins who played Nelly and Marion - Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz? They're just wonderful actors.

SCIAMMA: Yeah, they're a wonderful duo. And I felt really, really blessed when I met them. Actually, they're the only kid I met through the process of casting because they were such an aberration. And they were the only Nelly and Marion I ever considered. And - you know, and even when they were walking towards me the first time I saw them, it was pretty obvious that Josephine would be Nelly and that Gabrielle would be Marion.

SIMON: How did you work with actors so young and yet seemingly so wise?

SCIAMMA: Well, first, by not forgetting they are kids, which means that it's not weird to ask them to play (laughter). It even feels more natural than asking an adult to play or to perform. What they have to learn, though, is the job of cinema. And that's also why I love working with kids, is that they make you think really, really hard about the essence of cinema and also its simplicity, its clarity.

SIMON: There's a scene where Nelly is reassured that - I'll quote the subtitle - that she didn't, quote, "invent her mother's sadness." That's a wonderful thing for children to know - something we all worry about as children, isn't it?

SCIAMMA: Exactly. That's exactly why I wanted the character to say it. I wanted - because, you know, it really make the films thinking about equally, fully respecting equally the adult and the kid watcher. I made the film short so that families could situate very peacefully. And with this idea, that's - this sentence is important to hear, because you're always the child of someone all your life. Whether people are still here or not, the guilt is - can never go away, you know, can stick. But I was like, oh, what if a kid hears this? I mean, the sooner you hear this, the better you can love, then, also, you know? It's not only sad.

SIMON: And may I ask, how much of your relationship with your own mother do we see in this film?

SCIAMMA: Well, I think we see 100% of the relationship I would have with my mother if we met as kids.


SCIAMMA: No, the film is really, really - I don't really see it as a film about mother-daughter relationship, but I see it as a film between three generation of women. I feel like we're always told, like, we're frontally facing our mothers, but I think I feel like I'm part of such a bigger thread. And I've experienced a much wider community, at least the community of three. It's also a film about meeting your mother as a daughter. It's not only meeting your mother as a child.

SIMON: Yeah. It struck me at the end of the film that it would be - it's one of the wonderful things that the arts can do, isn't it? It can put us in another skin and be able to see the world differently. And I just felt very grateful to have seen it in this case.

SCIAMMA: I really believe that. I really always try to think and to visualize what kind of impact I want a film to have because, yes, you're right, the film art is opportunity to for a moment have a glimpse of another reality. But I'm also really obsessive about how it stays with you. And, for instance, with "Petite Maman," I had, like, one image. What I wanted the film to have as an impact was, like, a mother and a daughter are in a cinema. The film ends. Credit rolls. They get out of the room. They have to go home. There's the bus. They have to run to catch the bus. And they will run differently together.

SIMON: Filmmaker and director Celine Sciamma - her film "Petite Maman" is out now. Thank you so much for being with us.

SCIAMMA: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.