Hot on the heels of her 2019 triumph Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature continues a perfect track record. This is yet another gorgeous and perceptive film, told from a determinedly female perspective but with a wisdom that is all-embracing.
Having started her career with films about children (Water Lilies, Tomboy), before moving to teenagers (Girlhood) and then adults (Portrait), Sciamma now takes on three generations at once – a girl, her mother and grandmother – to consider the threads of memory, personality and time that connect them. Her approach is one that is both magical and mysterious.
It starts in a nursing home, where a young girl moves from room to room, saying goodbye to its elderly occupants, having missed the one she really wanted to say goodbye to, her grandmother, who has just passed away. This is eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who now travels into the country with her parents to clean out her mother, Marion’s childhood home, a house on the edge of a beautiful wood. Marion (Nina Meurisse) is pensive, sad. Nelly asks her why she never liked her childhood bedroom. “Child’s stuff,” the mother answers evasively, to which this wise young girl replies, “I’m interested. I’m a child.”
The next morning Marion has gone, leaving her husband (Stéphane Varupenne) to continue closing the house down without her. Meanwhile, Nellie ventures into the wood in search of her mother’s old treehouse; when she finds it, another girl is playing there. Her name is Marion. And she looks exactly like Nellie.
Neither girl bats an eyelid at the resemblance, though Nellie does have a lovely little double-take when she discovers that Marion’s home is exactly like her own. As the girls become friends and Nelly meets Marion’s mother (who uses the same walking stick as her gran), Sciamma masterfully allows the myriad possibilities of this strange meeting – a child’s imagination, an illusion created by grief, perhaps even something fantastical but real.
Whatever it is, Nellie uses these meetings to learn more about, and better understand her mother; at the same time, there’s a sense that young Marion may discover some ease that she can carry into her future self. The excellence of Sciamma’s writing and directing is such that the tone of the film remains at a gently low-key, almost nonchalant level, yet at the same time the ingenuity and depth of feeling are positively thrilling.
The director actively wanted twins to play the girls, and found them in Sanz and her sister Gabrielle, both of whom are extraordinary, revealing levels of nuanced intelligence and emotion that an adult actor would die for. Production design and photography are impeccable, with the whole film imbued with beautiful autumnal light.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk