Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire transcends time and space to weave a delicately emotional fable about grief, family, and connection across generations. In the wake of her grandmother’s death, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) accompanies her distraught mother (Nina Meurisse) to her childhood home. There, Nelly’s encounter with another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) brings mother and daughter together in a way neither could have ever imagined. Evoking childhood’s perpetual state of wonder through luminous, richly textured images, Petite maman takes viewers on a journey inward for a quietly miraculous tale of emotional time travel.
Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
Criterion hasn’t included any notes around the master, but the movie was shot digitally, and I would assume this presentation was sourced from the Digital Intermediate. Whatever the case, the results will still primarily come down to the quality of the original photography and Criterion’s encoding, both of which are mostly strong. As to its strengths, the image is razor-sharp and clear with high detail levels, the finer ones found in the surrounding woods of the central location popping beautifully. The colors look gorgeously saturated, and the black levels are rich.
It's all mostly well and good. However, the image is weakest in how it handles delineation within in the shadows of the film’s dimly lit sequences, where banding is evident and distorts as the camera moves through the space. It’s hard to say whether it’s inherent to the original digital photography or an issue with the encoding. Still, outside of that artifact, nothing else noteworthy ever pops up, the image looking clean and stable the rest of the time.
The film features a 5.1 surround soundtrack presented here in DTS-HD MA. It’s a quiet film, with most of the audio focused on the front speakers. The surrounds kick in with background sounds from the environment, a rainstorm making the most effective use of the surround channels with the booming of the thunder sounding to come from above. It also has one loud, surprising moment where music (“future music”) comes crashing in suddenly, spreading to all speakers while pushing the lower frequency. The rest of the presentation is quiet, but the dialogue still sounds sharp and clear.
This is a surprisingly sparse edition, though Criterion has thrown in one surprise addition (added after the initial announcement) that comes close to making up for any of its other shortcomings. Specific to the film are two trailers (playing one after the other), an essay on the film by So Mayer (in the included insert), and a new interview between director Céline Sciamma and filmmaker Joachim Trier, running about 22 minutes. Trier was especially taken by the film, finding it incredibly profound for something that appears so deceptively simple and only runs a little over 70 minutes, and this opens things up to Sciamma explaining why she made the film, which seems small, following Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Still, that film and its success gave her more freedom to do what she wants, and this is the type of film she wants to do. She also explains why she focused on specific themes and not the reasons behind why things happen.
She also mentions how she writes “secretly” for children, signs of that, of course, showing up in Petite maman, and Criterion backs that point by including the entire 2016 animated feature My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras and written by Sciamma, Sciamma even claiming that it’s the film that helped her in the direction of her writing (the notes for the feature also point out that Sciamma had initially wanted to do Petite maman as an animated feature). The film focuses on a young boy who, following a tragedy that he blames himself over, is moved to an orphanage, where he eventually befriends the other children before falling for a newcomer. Like Petite maman, it’s entirely from the children’s perspective, including how the adults are seen, and it handles its themes and story sensitively and honestly, all in a very tight runtime of 67 minutes.
It’s a beautiful gem of a film, and the fact that the folks at Criterion went out of their way to include it is a terrific surprise. Criterion also gives it a lovely presentation. I don’t have the Universal Blu-ray to compare, but the film looks very sharp and clean. Unfortunately, Criterion only presents the French soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 (no lossless audio), but it still sounds excellent.
I'm still a little letdown by the lack of much else (not even anything around the film's twin stars), but including My Life as a Zucchini is a wonderful touch.
Disappointingly sparse on features around the film, but including My Life as a Zucchini is an inspired choice.