Céline Sciamma’s luminous “Petite Maman” is a once-upon-a-time tale with a twist. Set in present-day France, in an isolated hamlet made for solitude and imagination, it is a story about family ties, childhood reveries and unanswerable questions. It’s also a story about finding someone who, like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle — the piece you knew existed but just needed you to find it — completes the picture. Put differently, it is a story about love.
Soon after it opens, the 8-year-old Nelly — the extraordinary, self-possessed Joséphine Sanz — and her parents travel to pack up her grandmother’s house. Nelly’s mother grew up there, and like all childhood homes, this one has become a haunted house, though its rooms feel steeped in sadness rather than fear. It’s a domestic time capsule of a kind, a modest, Spartan, poignantly forsaken place with faded wallpaper. Nelly regards it all with sober curiosity. And, as she moves through it, you note the white sheets draped over the furniture and the medical hand-bar over the grandmother’s bed, a mournful reminder of past difficulties.
With delicacy, minimal dialogue and lucid, harmoniously balanced images, Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) invites you into a world that is by turns ordinary and enigmatic. Part of the mystery is that it’s unclear what kind of story this is and where — with its charming child and restrained melancholy — it could be headed. Sciamma doesn’t tip her hand. Instead, she asks you to watch and listen, and to cozy up with Nelly. By withholding information, Sciamma is also encouraging you to look at this place and story with the open eyes of a child, which means putting aside your expectations of how movies work.
Like many fairy tales, this one really begins in the woods. As Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) start packing up the house, Nelly explores the surrounding area, with its bare trees and quiet. As a child, her mother built what she calls a hut in the forest and now Nelly would like to do the same. So, she wanders the pretty woodland, scuffs its carpet of vividly colored leaves and uses an acorn to fashion a whistle. When she blows on it, the wind gently picks up, as if answering her call. Later that night, nestled in her mother’s childhood bed, Nelly and her mom whisper as shadows gather on the walls.