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Arthouse film ‘Petite Maman’ recommended

by Philip Martin | May 6, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.

Celine Sciamma's "Petite Maman" is opening theatrically today. Go see it; it's terrific.

It's about 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) who, after the death of her maternal grandmother in a nursing home, travels with her parents to her mother's childhood home in a rural area of France. Nelly is an empathetic child who is particularly alert to her mother's suffering, but she's insulated from genuine grief by her youth.

While her folks are busy clearing out Grandma's house, Nelly -- more out of annoyance than sadness -- says that if she'd known that her most recent goodbye to her grandmother was, in fact, the last one ever, she would have somehow made it a better one.

"We can't know," her mother tells her, and the two of them drift off to sleep entwined in each others' arms.

The next morning, Nelly finds her mother gone -- a situation we sense she's used to. Her mom has important adulting to do in the world, she's involved in things that neither Nelly nor, it seems, her well-meaning but hapless dad can fully understand. So Nelly wanders off to play in the woods.

There she meets another little girl -- almost exactly like herself -- named Marion (played by Josephine's twin sister Gabrielle Sanz). They play in the forest, building a fort with sticks just like Nelly's mother did when she was a little girl. Soon Marion takes Nelly through a thicket and back to her house, which is strangely similar to Nelly's grandmother's, to meet her mother.

Even from what I've sketched here you might guess the central twist of the film, but that's all right, Sciamma doesn't mean it to be a puzzle. It's a straightforward and compact movie (73 minutes long) touched with magic. It was one of the best films I saw last year and I'm glad it's getting a widespread theatrical release.

It's a movie I'd recommend to almost anyone.

And I'm careful about recommending movies; I tend to distrust reviews that pretend to serve as consumer guides. Were it purely my decision, I might do away with the grades we assign these movies.

I don't think they are particularly useful in helping people decide whether or not to watch a movie; I understand that there is a potential audience for most films and that I like a lot of movies that are undeniably mediocre (and some that are outright bad). A critic's job is to accurately describe the work under consideration and try to say something interesting about it that might be true.

"Petite Maman" is gentle and digestible enough for children, even if they need a little help with the subtitles. While it's no doubt an arthouse movie -- subtitles are an effective barrier for some -- only the grumpiest and least accommodating of us will be able to resist it. You know who you are. They rest shouldn't miss this sweet -- but serious -- little fable.


With "Petit Maman" finally hitting theaters, it might be a good time to look back on some of the best foreign language films that haven't shown up in local theaters yet. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Drive My Car," nominated for both Best Picture and Best International Feature Oscars (Hamaguchi was also nominated for Best Director) is currently streaming on HBO Max and is available to buy or rent on platforms such as iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Google Play. The Criterion Collection will release the film on Blu-ray in July.

While still playing in some movie houses in some cities around the country, it looks like the chances of it playing theatrically in Arkansas are pretty slim. (Were it not for its running length -- a tick under three hours -- I might have shown it as part of my Lifequest series in July. I love the film, but that's just too long.)

"Parallel Mothers," the Pedro Almodovar film that stars Penelope Cruz as a single mother who bonds with a younger woman in a similar position, is also available to rent or buy on most VOD platforms, though it's not streaming for free anywhere yet. It might eventually turn up on Netflix, which controls its streaming rights in Latin America and has a deal with Sony Pictures to stream its 2022 titles. But "Parallel Mothers" is a 2021 film. While eventually it will end up streaming free (to subscribers) somewhere, I'm not sure anyone knows exactly where.

Almost every other international movie that made an impression on U.S. cinephiles last year is available online, though it's not always easy to discover where. Tsai Ming-liang's "Days" is apparently exclusively on Mubi. "Memoria" will apparently eventually arrive in Arkansas theaters, but I don't think you can see Nobuhiko Obayashi's "Labyrinth of Cinema" anywhere other than a few coastal arthouses.

One of the things we're missing these days is the joy we used to take in the pursuit of cultural artifacts. Now that we can stream just about any album we can think of by asking Siri or Alexa to play it, we've lost the fun of digging through record store bins. Maybe it's a good thing that we have to work a little to actually see these movies we've only heard about.

The ocean is large and there are lots of shiny things swimming around in it to distract us. I'm selfishly hoping this means we'll have more need of scouts and guides and deep sea divers pulling up odd and beautiful treasures from the depths.


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