You should see the film before you read this article. The unpredictable journey we are invited to take with its eight-year-old heroine becomes even more delightful if we are allowed to gradually realise the central premise of the story.
The virtues of Céline Sciamma‘s fifth feature Petite Maman have already been widely extolled. It is immediately striking in its gentleness as well as emotional and visual beauty, but what lies beneath the apparent simplicity are rich layers of structural echoes and quiet metaphors. It is a film where re-viewings transform the experience, lending it a singular, meditative weight.
Before this analytical journey, let us nevertheless dwell on some of the ingredients of its sweetness and bliss. The demeanour of the two central characters, played by the eight-year-old twin sisters Joséphine Sanz, as the heroine Nelly, and Gabrielle Sanz as Marion: accepting, intelligent, adventurous but still children in the most pure and carefree sense, as witnessed in the hilarious but deeply affecting pancake-baking scene.
Their deadpan, stylised seriousness when they act out the play (or film) they have written together is another delight, and the moment when Marion confesses that her dream is to become an actress is touching in its earnestness. In general, there are so many charming details, for example how Nelly is munching snacks with only her front teeth, or the way Marion sometimes go exaggeratedly up at the end of the sentence when posing questions, something that never fails to produce a smile in me.
Magic is not only present in the plot, in the fact that Nelly is able to transcend time to meet her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), as an eight-year-old and to enter a past version of Nelly’s grandmother’s house, but also in how shadows and sunlight are playing on the interior walls of the building. Nelly also meets her newly deceased grandmother, played by Margot Abascal, as a much younger person, as a kind of idealised figure, infinitely benign and friendly.
The pancake session is just the start of an evening of pure joy, when Marion’s birthday is celebrated as part of Nelly’s sleepover at her house, the last time they will spend together as children. The sequence is reminiscent of another film featuring sudden temporal displacement and blissful happiness on borrowed time, namely the epilogue of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001). That too contains a birthday party and is marked by wish fulfilment: the artificial boy is reunited with his “mother” who now unconditionally accepts him as human, and Sciamma’s girls have got the sister both have yearned for, while Nelly too meets a mother in a radically different version.
A subtle conflict
Until her exit after a little more than 15 minutes, Nelly’s mother is as prominent as the heroine, and will regain her importance in the last few seconds. In this quiet film, marked by a lingering pace – for example, the average shot length is as high as 15.9 seconds – there are 34 shots that last 30 seconds or more, and before Mother disappears, she is the centre of attention in six out of ten of them. And another shot is shared equally with Nelly, as they lie in the dark on the sofa, her last scene before leaving. In this intimate scene they fully interact, but in many other situations, mother and daughter are often occupying separate spaces: she is driving with Nelly in the back seat, with the latter appearing as a hand feeding her snacks; she is sitting on the floor leafing through old school books while Nelly is on the bed; when Nelly puts objects found in the forest into an ornament case they sit at a 90-degree angle to each other, Mother facing us, dominating the scene with her sad face although Nelly is ostensibly the active one.
Although never spelled out, there is a conflict murmuring within the story. Mother’s sadness seems to go beyond the grief over her own mother’s death. She is warm towards Nelly but at the same time there is a palpable feeling of detachment and inwardness. Her very first appearance sets the tone: her only line in the opening scene at the old people’s home comes from off-screen, and we never see her face properly there. Instead she has her back to us and Nelly, lost in her own morose preoccupations. Until the film’s very last moments, she seldom looks directly at people (and when she does, her gaze is not attentive or active), her facial expression is never open, and she never smiles. In a telling moment, she points out that Nelly is always asking her questions when being tucked in at bedtime, and Nelly explains it is because “that’s when I can see you”, indicating that there might be a lack of other situations with full maternal attention.
The main problem appears to be with her husband, as can be witnessed during breakfast the first morning. The fact that he has forgotten about a very important childhood memory of hers is met without a shred of surprise, just resignation and sullenness, while the camera rests meaningfully on her for an extended period. On the other hand, she has no problem remembering the interior painting shortcuts of the house when he brings that up. The fact that they do not share a bed while at the grandmother’s house does not in itself need to mean much – there is probably not room in the available bed – but there is nevertheless an odd hint of raw emotion in his voice when it is mentioned that Nelly shared the sofa with her, as if they have enjoyed a communion denied to him.
As the only male among the film’s eight characters, he seems to be on a different wavelength. Everything revolves around his wife’s branch of the family. While she is announced as Marion, he remains nameless. (This is not necessarily a slight, since we never know the grandmother’s name either.)
As it turns out, Nelly is worried that she is the reason that Mother is constantly sad, long before the recent death. During her last night at the house, Mother touchingly pretended she was Nelly’s grandmother, so that Nelly could say a proper goodbye to her, since Nelly was dissatisfied with her last one, not having known it would be final. But in the morning, after Mother suddenly has decided to leave when the daughter was sleeping, Nelly might fear that Mother’s gesture also meant a goodbye from her. Like with her grandmother, neither this time did Nelly realise it was the “last time”. The absence of Mother after such an imperfect goodbye must be especially unnerving to Nelly, exacerbating her fears that Mother might not come back. It will be up to Mother’s eight-year-old self to tell Nelly, confidently, that she will come back and Nelly herself never was a problem.
Portals to the past
In an early scene, Mother is looking at her old school notebooks, which her own mother has carefully saved. Each room in Nelly’s grandmother’s house is packed with such memories, triggered by their interiors or objects stored inside them, with the doorways like a series of portals to the past. Already the opening shot at the old people’s home hints about this, as Nelly enters three different rooms to say goodbye, inside each encountering a woman containing her own world of life-time memories. This larger concept of time and the past is fortified by some minute details: during the titles before the first image there is a sound of an old-fashioned clock ticking, and the first woman, whom Nelly helps with her crossword puzzle, comes up with the word “Alexandria”, a city of ancient origin.
The opening shot is a long take lasting about 100 seconds, and almost as important as Nelly’s interactions is the sight of her trundling along the corridor. This shape will return in a corridor in her grandmother’s house, a passage that the film is constantly fetishising.
A large, almost hidden cupboard in that corridor – as we see above, Nelly has to feel for its door with her fingers, the difficulty of access seeming to signify importance – contains boxes which again contains objects of the past. It is notable that it is precisely here Nelly finds the old toy, a paddlegame, and even more significant, when she plays with it, this object suddenly breaks, sending the ball out into the woods. As if this calamity has caused a rift in time, with the randomness of the ball’s landing place as an added feature when Nelly goes to look for it, it is precisely now she spots the eight-year-old version of her mother for the first time.
In keeping with the film’s theme, Nelly is keenly interested in the memories of both her parents. At breakfast the first morning, the family talk about a hut made of branches that Mother as a child built in the forest before an important operation – obviously, for some reason this is a highly cherished memory to her, which she seems to have spoken of many times before.
At this very point, the past suddenly appears in the present: when Nelly’s father pushes a cupboard away, an unpainted area with an old wallpaper is revealed, as if a portal to the past. Mother is carefully positioned in front of that portal; in fact the entire shot, a long take, has unwaveringly remained on her. It is also during precisely this shot, just after the portal has become visible, that her name is announced as Marion, which is also the name of the eight-year-old girl whom Nelly will soon meet. (The portal’s green colour fits with the importance of nature in the film, through the surrounding forest.)
Later, during Nelly’s unnerving first visit at Marion’s house, she remains standing motionless, as if taken aback. Then it is revealed what she is looking at: an entire wall filled with the same green pattern. As Nelly starts to move, the camera tracks forward, as her point-of-view, hypnotically, ominously, as if she is about to be swallowed up in the green. Framing our view of the kitchen is a real portal, formed by an arch over the entrance. Note that as she stands frozen, the green pane in the toilet door at the end of the corridor, just behind her head, functions as a foreshadowing.
When Nelly sits down, the wall forms a solid green behind her, and, curiously, there is a green field behind Marion as well. Compared to the earlier kitchen scene, Nelly and her mother have switched places, part of the film’s motif of displacement and fluidity, which we will go into later.
In two later scenes, Nelly interacts with Father (Stéphane Varupenne). Both times, she has the portal behind her, and each time they speak of the past. In the first scene, Father has already forgotten what was said the day before about Mother’s childhood hut in the forest, and in the second one, above, it is Father’s turn: Nelly wants to know more important things about his past. (In the moment that he admits in a whisper to having been afraid of his own father, he bends over Nelly so he, too, is touched by the portal.)
When Marion visits the other house, Nelly goes to speak to Father, and is shot against the green field, and when Marion joins them, the green is always very visible behind the girls. And look at what happens, above, in the moment Father sees Marion for the first time: he has stepped carefully forward so that he is framed against a green object.
After having granted Nelly a sleepover at Marion’s place, Father smiles in the direction of his future wife, and in one of the film’s most touching moments, she whispers “thank you”.
There is also an earlier instance of this portal, the night when Nelly could not sleep: a vaguely ominous moment in a darkened kitchen as Nelly looks over at it, the camera lingering at the moment, loading the field on the wall with a mysterious significance. Again, it is connected to Mother, but more indirectly. Nelly looks at the wall after having drunk from a glass of water, and in the next shot she is carrying a glass, almost overflowing with water, through the hall and it is in the very moment when she stops to drink from it that she discovers Mother lying on the living-room sofa.
When the children have completed the hut, Nelly thinks it a fitting moment to tell Marion what she has realised, that she is Marion’s daughter. “So you come from the future,” Marion states without batting an eyelid. In a very sweet moment, Nelly answers in an endearingly concrete and entirely truthful manner: “I come from this path behind you”. Before they have shared the shot, enthusing about the hut, but during this discussion they never share the frame, as if the separation through editing shall underscore that they are from different eras.
During the transcendent sequence accompanied by the “music from the future”, all the stronger because it is the only non-diegetic music in the film – except for some notes during the title card – the girls are paddling through a pyramid half-submerged in a lake. This is another a portal, with the girls entering at one side and exiting from another. The music dies out as they sit on the pyramid looking out over the landscape, as if they have achieved some clarity. The feeling of exuberance and the tone-breaking nature of the interlude, with a sudden everything-is-possible atmosphere, is a Sciamma speciality, as witnessed by the Rihanna dance scene in Girlhood (2014) and the communal singing at the bonfire in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).
Displacement and fluidity
Perhaps the most significant feature of Petite Maman is an all-pervasive, although subtle, feeling of displacement and fluidity, shifting grounds and intermingling, repetitions and doublings, as regards characters and places.
In the opening shot, Nelly carefully bids goodbye to three old ladies, who, to Nelly, are clearly some sort of stand-ins for her dead grandmother, not only in age, gender and as inhabitants of the same old people’s home, but also since Nelly’s last adieu to the grandmother was “not good” because she did not know it was the last time they would see each other. But now, with the other ladies she knows, since there is no reason for her to visit the home any more. The encounters between elderly people and an eight-year-old also foreshadow how the later action will conflate time planes and generations.
Furthermore, she is helping the first lady with her crossword puzzle, which we have reason to believe might have been part of a ritual with her grandmother during visits, since in Marion’s house we will see that the grandmother was solving such puzzles, and there too with Nelly’s help. (Nelly is good with words, the reason she is able to find fault with her mother’s spelling in the old school notebooks.) And to further contribute to the general fluidity, during the crossword scene at Marion’s house Nelly is wearing the costume of the character she portrays in the play-within-the-film, who on top of everything is a male character. This mild instance of gender fluidity and queerness also resonates with a prominent theme of the Sciamma filmography.
There is also something curious about the film’s first seconds. It starts on a lingering close-up on the old woman, fiddling with a pencil, then the camera moves down to the crossword puzzle, to find a hand holding the same type of pencil, filling out the word, before the movement continues to finally include what we will learn is the heroine. It is almost as if she springs forth in the film through the very activity of the co-operative effort, and when her face becomes visible it is closely aligned with that of the woman, while all the elements of the situation have been connected via the fluid camera movement.
A major instance of displacement in Petite Maman is the fact that Nelly and her parents do not stay at their own place, but in the grandmother’s house. There, Nelly sleeps in Mother’s old bed and later, after she has been spooked by seeing her own grandmother, as a younger person, lying in bed in Marion’s house, when she is back “home” again, she changes beds, lying down to sleep in her grandmother’s. She even copies the position, with her back to the camera.
As she spots her grandmother in Marion’s house, there is the sound of a clock ticking, like during the titles, and in the second scene, before entering the room, she stands listening, as if afraid that somehow the room in this house too should be occupied by the grandmother.
Furthermore in this game of musical beds, Father, who during the first night must have been sleeping in the grandmother’s bed, is now forced to move to Nelly’s bed. Playing into this entire complex of displacement is the aforementioned scene where Mother pretended to be the grandmother, so that Nelly could play to bid her properly adieu. The next morning, however, the pretend goodbye has shifted into something real, because Mother has left.
Here are some other instances of the motif:
- In the opening scene, Mother sits looking out of the window of her mother’s room at the old people’s home, which her mother is likely to have done a lot of times, and with her back to the camera, the difference between them is even less emphasised.
- In the next shot after the opening scene, we might believe Nelly is lying in bed, but the ground has shifted again: it turns out that she is in the back seat of a car, and the pillow and bedspread are likely from the bed at the home. Also here, her head against the pillow expresses a yearning for the deceased, not dissimilar to the later scene when Nelly replicates the grandmother’s position in the bed.
- Like her mother, Nelly wants to build a hut in the woods and it must stand in the same place.
- When Nelly puts small objects (stones?) in the ornament case, Mother produces one too and puts it in, at the same revealing that she too has been out in the woods
- When Nelly discovers Mother lying on the sofa she is carrying a glass of water – it is almost spilling over, like the glass of milk during the later pancake-baking scene – and in the next scene on that sofa, now in Marion’s house, she gives her grandmother a glass of water. To further conflate matters, this is on the same sofa where Mother pretended to be the grandmother.
- Both Marion and her mother (Nelly’s grandmother) dwell on the fact that the heroine is called Nelly, so it is likely that she is named after her great-grandmother – Marion specifically mentions that her grandmother had the same name – adding a fourth generation to the family tree of this complicated film.
- In Marion’s house, as an eight-year-old she is preparing food for Nelly, as if this is pointing forwards to the countless times her future self will do as Nelly’s mother. Moreover, as Nelly is approaching the kitchen there is an off-screen clatter of plates, which replicates the situation when she came in for breakfast the first morning at the other house.
- In both cases when an adult is introduced in the respective houses, it happens through off-screen sound, of an almost identical nature: when Nelly is in Marion’s house she hears the sound of a door opening and then steps, plus a cane, as her grandmother is approaching, and when Marion visits Nelly’s house they hear the sound of a door closing and the steps of Father. At that exact point, Nelly is holding the cane, which made the sound in the previous scene, an object apparently of great affective value to her, since she asked to inherit it in the opening scene.
- Marion confesses that her dream is to become an actress, and Nelly says, in a circumspect and hesitant tone, that she could become that – Mother’s profession is never made clear, but this heavily implies that she is indeed an actress, and her own daughter’s encouragement might have been important, a well-known trope in time travel films.
- Just after this, another dream comes true, for Nelly this time, since Father has decided to shave off his beard. Afterwards, he looks like a younger version of himself, another “time travel”. Nelly marvels at how different he looks, and they greet each other, as if they have met for the first time. (Dreams are also central to the lyrics for the “music from the future”, just check the left bottom corner of the end titles where the words appear when the music is replayed there.)
- “I’m sure she’ll come back,” Marion says about Nelly’s mother, and that is doubly true, since Mother has already returned to Nelly’s life in the form of her eight-year-old self, and at the film’s conclusion Mother, in her proper form, has indeed returned. The same type of doubling is caused by Marion’s “are you afraid I won’t come back”: Nelly thinks she means from her operation, but she speaks of her future self. To add to the conflation, Marion is often speaking of her future self’s actions in the present tense.
- “How old am I”, Marion says, asking about the time when her mother will die, which is reminiscent of questions like “how will you die” when the girls are writing their play, and other paradoxical, temporally confused statements like “you were young when you had me”.
- There are two birthdays, but for the same person: Marion, and Nelly’s mother. Considering this, it is amusing that Marion wants the ritual of the “happy birthday” song performed twice.
The play that the girls are writing introduces yet another layer. Marion is reintroduced in Petite maman as a little girl, but here both Marion and Nelly play adults, and are assigned multiple roles, although we only see them as a countess and a police inspector. The play contains several reflections of the action of the film: Nelly uses her grandmother’s cane as a prop. Marion’s future role as a mother is mirrored in the baby she shows to Nelly’s character in the last performed scene. The baby, whom the countess has had with another character, is given as the reason she cannot go away with the police inspector, even though they are in love. This reflects the likely reason that Marion’s future self has come back at the end of the film, out of love for Nelly. Some more fluidity is introduced by the fact that the baby is a boy not a girl, but «he looks like you», as Nelly says to Marion, rings true, given the close likeness between the girls in the film. Even a similar time difference is incorporated into the play: Marion’s grandmother died “last year”, and the countess and the inspector meet a year after the main action of the play. The talk of being secretive echoes Nelly’s secret that Marion is her future mother.
The last scene of the play has Marion replicating her future self’s position, with her back to us facing a window, from the film’s opening scene, down to the detail of sitting on a small table. Nelly has probably directed this scene, touchingly inspired by this memory, also providing it with quite an elaborate mise-en-scène, choreographing Marion’s later movements.
Arriving at the truth, in stages
I can only envy those who have managed to replicate my own first rendezvous with Petite Maman, unsullied by any foreknowledge. If one already knows that Nelly will meet and interact with her mother, magically appearing to her at the same age, many of the numerous clues may come across as obvious. But I can assure the reader that assuming some sort of time travel has happened is really far down on the list of things one considers. In addition, although the tone of the film is lyrical, it is at the same time matter-of-fact and realistic, equally so for the scenes where Nelly visits Marion in the latter’s time-warped plane. Thus there is nothing that encourages us to interpret the happenings on that plane as something inherently strange. In fact, upon first sight of Marion I had the wild thought that she might be the dead grandmother appearing as a ghost, haunting her old parts in the form of a child, but the studied realism of the situation soon dispelled the idea.
It is also interesting to see how Sciamma deliberately obscures the various, gradual revelations. As soon as Marion has told Nelly her name, thunder and rain break out, so we do not think that hard about the fact that she is the namesake of Nelly’s mother. (The latter’s name is only stated once, so if I recall my own first-viewing reaction correctly, I just felt the name to be vaguely familiar.) The rain and the girls’ frantic run for shelter also serve to distract us from the uncanny similarity of Marion’s house and its surroundings as they approach. Nelly herself stops for a tiny moment, as if she is slightly taken aback by the sight, but we only understand the reason for that detail on later viewings.
When inside, the first shot is directed towards the entrance door, a camera position so far never used in Nelly’s house, so the interior is not immediately striking us as identical. Soon they are inside the bathroom, drying off, and neither this location, with its distinctive, powerfully blue tiles, has been shown before. Outside, we never really got a clear, solid look at Marion’s face, so it is only now that their similarity becomes striking, facing each other, doing the same activity, using identical towels, and with their outer, differently coloured clothes off, both are now dressed in white tops.
When Nelly approaches the kitchen of Marion’s house, the wallpaper we saw appear from behind the kitchen cupboard in Nelly’s house has now spread to the entire wall. This too came across to me as something vaguely familiar – in the earlier scene, we concentrate on the people and their interactions, and with no idea that the wallpaper will become important, we have no reason to give it special attention. When we see the kitchen this is yet another sight new to us in Marion’s house: except from the night the family arrived at the other house, when it was dark and every object in the kitchen was covered in drapes, this is our first view of it from this angle, so no bells are clearly ringing. As for the strikingly blue cupboard, we have only seen it before as an out-of-focus shape in the background. Soon Nelly will examine Marion’s school notebooks and this time we see the covers clearly, but earlier they were not easily visible. (A close inspection reveals they are identical, however.)
The only solid indicator is the similarity of the exteriors, plus the fact that the central corridor is oddly identical, with the same green pane in a door at its end and the same type of cupboard in the wall, which Nelly immediately locates – in this one aspect, the film might be a bit too obvious – as well as Nelly’s generally hesitant behaviour. She gives pause and seems spooked when Marion points out that Nelly’s name is the same as her own grandmother’s. She immediately finds an excuse to leave the table to discreetly search the place, at the same time giving away that she somehow knows where the toilet is. Finally, she is seriously upset by the sight of a woman lying in bed in one of the rooms, who might be her grandmother, not only alive but as a younger woman.
She hurries out to get home. Here it must be pointed out that the audience does not know that Nelly is (very likely) named after her great-grandmother, Marion’s grandmother, the item that triggers her initial, serious alarm bells. The similarity of the houses could be explained away by the fact that, in close proximity as they seem, they could have been built by the same architect – virtually anything is more plausible than jumping to a theory involving time travel.
Marion bearing the same name as Nelly’s mother initially does not necessarily mean more than a screenplay device, setting up an echo. Furthermore, Nelly might fear that she has entered a parallel world where she has been replaced by another girl – after all, they look eerily similar – and the woman she discovers in the room, only seen from behind, could be her mother, who has just disappeared from her own life. Thus, she runs home to find out whether her own existence is still intact.
Having arrived at what she hopes is her own house, the same, estranging forward camera movement in connection with the kitchen is replicated with the house in sight – it stands even more out since there is very little camera writing of this sort in the rest of the film – and when she enters, the same camera angle towards the entrance door is replicated from Nelly’s place. It is after all a common trope in supernatural stories that when one tries to escape from a place of danger, one very often simply ends up back at the same spot. It is only when she hears Father’s voice that she can be sure she is back to normality.
Later, during the next visit, it was only at the sight of Marion’s mother approaching them using a very similar cane as the one used by Nelly’s grandmother, plus the fact that Marion soon starts to talk about an operation, an event Nelly recognises from her mother’s childhood, that I had to jettison the explaining-away approach and fully embrace the by now undeniable strangeness of the situation. Nelly herself looks at her grandmother intently, but does not betray any emotion, even though she is in fact seeing a ghost.
The next plausible option is that Marion’s world is Nelly’s fantasy. Creating imaginary friends is common for children, and Marion is almost too good to be true, a mirror image of Nelly, not only in appearance but sharing many of the same interests, and they have marvellous chemistry – a perfect relief for Nelly’s loneliness as a single child. Also in this respect the girls mirror each other, and both of them even have a recently dead grandmother, only that Marion’s passed away a year ago, not a week. As a bonus Nelly gets her grandmother back, possibly in an idealised version, unfailingly gentle and loving. It is notable that Marion only appears after Nelly’s mother has left, creating a turmoil that could spur her imagination. (It is almost as if Marion-as-child and the adult Marion cannot occupy the same narrative, because later Mother will return but only when Marion has gone, for the operation.)
Sciamma is doing a great deal to encourage the fantasy interpretation. Brilliantly, while Marion and Nelly are exchanging glances during their board-playing session, in a shot of Nelly, even as she maintains the sight line towards Marion, suddenly an arm sets down a plate, and it is immediately clear that it belongs to Father. (However many times I see the film, this rupture in geographical and narrative space is always startling.) He remarks that she looks as if she is “miles away” and Nelly immediately begins to speak of this new friend she has got. Later, Nelly goes to the hut in the forest and works on it completely alone, for a change, and there is an abrupt cut to the girls sitting together in Marion’s house, as if this might be something that Nelly is dreaming up while building the hut. Further undermining the feeling of reality, they are here working on the scenario of a play (or a film), a make-believe activity full of outlandish imaginations. Just afterwards, when Nelly is unable to put on the tie required for the role, she looks to the side, and Marion’s mother sits in the sofa, as if she just sprang into existence by the cut, to help Nelly.
It is here that she turns out to be an avid crossword practitioner and Nelly assists her, and in this fantasy interpretation Nelly could just be incorporating an element from reality, namely the old lady we met in the opening shot. Even later, the beautiful scene when the girls sit in the bedroom with the sun playing against the wall is followed by an abrupt cut to Nelly back at her own place, on the same bed with similar shapes of light on the wall, as if again the previous scene was just imagined. And soon Father enters, declaring that he will fulfil one of her dreams, the choice of words playing into what she might have been doing.
These kinds of abrupt cuts form a deliberate motif in the film, at its most playful when Nelly wants to go to sleep at once since she cannot wait getting on with her next day. So Father jokingly speaks of sleep as a “time accelerator” – fitting in with the film’s theme – and at the very point when he “activates” it by turning off the bedroom light switch, the sound coincides with a cut, a real time acceleration, at least in cinematic terms, to the hut in the forest. This turns out to be a solemn event where both girls celebrate its completion. Later, when Marion blows out the candles on her birthday cake, we are whisked away to the next scene, fittingly dimly lit, the hushed conversation between the girls while in bed.
Alas, the imaginary friend theory shatters too, as Marion eventually visits Nelly’s house and Father interacts with her as a real, solid girl. When Marion appears in the doorway to the kitchen, taking this drastic step to get Father to agree to a sleepover for Nelly, we half-expect him to never acknowledge her. This is much more difficult to relegate to a status of fantasy, because all through the film, Father has been an anchor of reality. Even though the entire film is told from Nelly’s viewpoint – except for the short moment just before when Marion hesitates, looking at Nelly’s house in some trepidation – it goes against the grain of the film to posit that Father’s reaction is something Nelly is dreaming up too.
And come to think of it, since Nelly’s adventures seem to have had a definite effect on her real mother, at least on Nelly’s ability to understand her, how could mere fantasising about her lead to concrete understanding? The only plausible theory left to us is some kind of magical time travel.
Resolution and return
As Marion leaves for the operation with her mother, Nelly gets the chance of repairing what she thought was her last, mediocre adieu to her grandmother. Now she emphatically knows that this is the last she will see of her. It is a beautiful moment, rising so organically out of the situation, taking the viewer by surprise with its effortless yet momentous significance. Just before, Nelly has embraced Marion: this is a proper goodbye too, because both of them realise this is their last moment – as Nelly says to Father when negotiating the sleepover, “there won’t be another time” – at least on this age level.
The grandmother’s adieu is accompanied by a gentle touch of Nelly’s cheek, which culminates a small pattern: Nelly puts her hands around Mother’s neck as she is driving, which elicits a half-smile in the latter, her happiest moment in the film until the end, and in the scene between Nelly and Marion in bed after the birthday party, Marion is caressing her future daughter’s cheek in motherly compassion.
Still, there is some loneliness: when the car is leaving and Nelly stands looking in its direction, the wind is increasing, rustling her hair. It is producing atmospheric sounds, like it did when Nelly sat earlier in the film, dwarfed under some trees and diminished by the distance of the camera. This is before Marion-as-child has turned up in the film, in the shot after Nelly has blown her improvised whistle, as if she has called for someone who has not yet come.
As Nelly returns to her own place, she is captured in the third and last shot in the direction of the kitchen, from the all-important corridor, with the arch forming a portal.
The first time comes when the family enter upon their arrival at the house, furniture draped in ghostly sheets and with constant, slightly ominous shadows on the wall. The second occurrence happens as Marion visits Nelly’s house, when there is an enchanting play of sunlight and moving leaves. In the last instance, there is just an even light: with Marion’s exit from Nelly’s life, it has become less magical. (This set-up emphasises the shot as a portal because the camera lingers upon it as an empty space before a human steps into it.)
Suddenly we see what Nelly is gazing at, the cut quietly exploding into view: Mother sits on the floor in the now bare living room, almost exactly in the spot where mother and daughter were last together, lying on the sofa the night before she abruptly left. With all the furniture gone from the house, there is a feeling of clarity and no longer being encumbered by the past. Nelly sits down beside her, now, contrary to many earlier cases, sharing the space on an even level. In addition to having learned to know Mother as a child, she has seen the world through her eyes by having finally spotted the black panther formed by the moving patterns of branches and leaves, as if the all-important forest has entered the bedroom, the dark antagonist of the patterns of sunlight that so pervade the house. But instead of being frightened like her mother, she gazes at the panther with calm eyes.
As if signalling a new phase in their relationship and a fresh understanding, almost as if they really see each other for the first time, Nelly addresses her mother as Marion, as if she is still the eight-year-old whom Nelly has just befriended and lost, and surprised and amused by this, she answers with “Nelly”. Also here, there is an echo of the grandmother in the other house, who in the same room pointed out the long time since she had spoken that name, her own mother’s.
Never in the film is there any suggestion that Marion remembers anything about a past meeting with her future daughter, or that Nelly’s recent adventure now has altered her mother’s timeline. If there was indeed such a meeting in her original timeline, she might have later written it off as the fantasy of a child, but still the memory of the hut in the forest has become lodged as extraordinarily important.
Before saying Nelly’s name, she brightens into a wide smile, seeming for the first time in the film to be at ease, addressing her child with an open face, not just a mother but an individual now. And as she is in the same room, their previous last moments together, where she played the pretend-game of being Nelly’s grandmother, she is definitely herself now.
Her last act in the film is to embrace Nelly, which is another culmination of a series: her husband’s well-meaning but rather one-sided embrace outside the old people’s home; Nelly and Mother the night before she left; with Father after he has given permission for the sleepover; and with Marion before she leaves for the operation.
The return of Nelly’s mother has also meant her return as the centre of attention in the last seconds. So, during the embrace, in the last instance of the film’s series of abrupt but organic cuts, as she closes her eyes, the film ends.