I’m Already Thinking About You

Petite Maman (2021)

Photo: Courtesy of NEON

As a child, I liked to think about time passing not in a line but in layers. The way I saw it, our experience of the present moment was both subjective and constant; for any person, at any time throughout history, “right now” is a perpetually occurring thing; in any given location, there are a million different “right nows” that have been and are being experienced. When I’d begin down this train of thought, I would think of myself, and then I would think of my home—the cul-de-sac it looked out onto, the cherry tree in the front yard—the locus of my experience of the world. And then I would consider the other people who had lived a life in this same place, and who—in their own similarly subjective view of “right now”—were still doing so. Perhaps for them, the cul-de-sac had not yet been cleared and paved, perhaps the trees in the yard were still just saplings. But even so, in my mind’s eye, this small spot of dirt in Virginia was layered with time, with common experience, and with aliveness.

It’s the kind of idea that most makes sense to a child, to someone for whom a certain blurriness of thought or permeability of reality is still possible. I remember knowing that this connectivity of place and people wasn’t true in any scientific sense but that it felt true on a more theoretical level. I once tried to explain it to an adult; they didn’t understand.

Céline Sciamma’s 2021 film Petite Maman manages to recognize the rich and complex interiority of children—a rarity in art, especially art made by and for adults. Its pair of eight-year-old protagonists are wise and curious, somber and playful. In one scene, they’ll offer a poignant word on loneliness or grief, while in the next, they smear crêpe batter on each other’s faces. The juxtaposition of these two moods never feels contrived, never seems designed to say something; it simply depicts children as children know themselves to be. It makes sense then that it would be in this film, and not anywhere else, that I would find my childhood notion of layered time understood and made visible.

At the center of Petite Maman is Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), an eight-year-old whose maternal grandmother has just died. Nelly and her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) return to the house to clean it out, but her mother, overwhelmed by grief, leaves soon after arrival. In her absence, Nelly explores the place where her mother spent her childhood. While playing in the woods, she encounters another girl her age who looks almost exactly like her. This is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who Nelly joins in building a fort out of fallen tree branches. When it begins to rain, the girls race back to Marion’s house, which looks strangely similar to Nelly’s grandmother’s home. She cautiously explores the familiar rooms and, upon opening a bedroom door, finds a sleeping woman with the same physical ailment as her late grandmother. It is here that realization dawns—Marion, Nelly’s new friend, is actually Nelly’s own mother as an eight year old. Marion’s home isn’t just similar to Nelly’s grandmother’s house, it is the same house, some twenty years earlier. Bewildered, Nelly hurriedly leaves the way she came, back to the house where her father is waiting. But her curiosity gets the better of her and she returns to the forest the next day, and for days afterwards, as she begins to cultivate a budding friendship with her mother.

The layering of time in Petite Maman isn’t really spelled out, at least not until closer to the end of the film. Rather, Sciamma’s gentle directorial hand simply folds Marion’s and Nelly’s eight-year-old “right nows” inwards towards each other so that they meet in a common place. Nelly doesn’t travel back in time or Marion forward so much as the two time periods in which they each exist happen to occupy the same space for a few days. Sciamma has described her film as “a new approach to the time travel story. An intimate journey where the issue at stake is neither the future nor the past, but shared time.” Amidst the layers of this shared time, the distinction between “mother” and “daughter” becomes blurred—Nelly comforts Marion, assuaging her fears of the future; Marion expresses the imaginative hopes and dreams she never would have divulged as an adult; they probe their common loneliness and find that it is both inherited and inherent. What develops is a gentle intimacy, an understanding of each other that linear chronology could never have provided.

Repeatedly, the film introduces seemingly contrasting pairs—parenthood and childhood, past and future, presence and absence, mother and daughter—only to fold them together and trace their common outlines. In doing so, it isn’t saying that their distinctions are unimportant but simply that beautiful things can come from finding what they share.


Last year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (where I live) programmed Petite Maman as part of a series called “Dark Mirrors: The Double in Cinema.” The weekly film screenings ran in conjunction with a temporary exhibit of eerie artwork and photographs featuring doubles, doppelgangers, and the like. Other films in the lineup included Vertigo (1958), Persona (1966), and Us (2019). It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Petite Maman is the odd one out here. Typically, as the art exhibit and other films in the program imply, there’s something unnatural or even threatening about a doppelganger. In cinema in particular, it can suggest a deeper aberration, some carefully concealed or more twisted aspect of the self come to light. But in Petite Maman the rainy, autumnal hues of Claire Mathon’s cinematography, the cozy sweaters our round-cheeked protagonists wear, and the gentle interactions between Nelly and her parents all contribute to a sense of quiet comfort rather than unease. The film is warm, kind, and, in several of its later scenes, quite joyful.

And yet, perhaps Petite Maman does, in fact, belong in this slate of films. There is an intentionality behind Sciamma’s decision to cast twin sisters as Nelly and Marion, rather than two unrelated actresses with just similar enough features to be mother and daughter. The presence of a double is inherently destabilizing, not because of its uncanniness, but because it necessitates a reexamination of the self. One must determine where selfhood ends and the recreated other begins, or else admit the permeability of the border between the two. In the case of Nelly and Marion, such a negotiation is tempered by the tenderness of their relationship, but it requires vulnerability nonetheless. 

We first see adult Marion from Nelly’s point of view. Her head is angled half away as she cleans out the nursing home room of her late mother. She then turns her back to us and Nelly as she looks out the window. This shot lasts for a slow thirty-five seconds as the title fades in. Marion is private, withdrawn, solitary in her sadness.

In the car leaving the nursing home, Nelly munches on a bag of snacks in the backseat. The camera is lingering on Marion in profile in the driver’s seat, when Nelly’s tiny arms reach around the headrest and offer a snack. Marion takes a bite as she drives. Her hands withdraw and return with another snack and then, after a moment, a juice box. They return a final time to gently cradle Marion’s head in a hug. She smiles. The ritual has clearly been done many times before. Marion is gentle, familiar, tenderly loved and loving.

At her grandmother’s house, Nelly peruses her mom’s old school books, plays with her toys, sleeps in her bed. In hesitating and vague snippets, adult Marion tells her about childhood—the hut in the woods and the scary shadows on the bedroom wall. “Does it upset you, being here?” Nelly asks. At night, she crawls onto the couch next to her sleeping mother. In the morning, adult Marion is gone. Nelly’s father tells her it’s better this way, that they’ll finish cleaning out the house and then go back. Marion is fragmented, unknowable, and absent.

Nelly’s ensuing friendship with eight-year-old Marion stems from her desire to know her mother better, to reconcile her loving tenderness with her sadness and her absence, and to see her as a whole person before she was a parent. Seeing her own face reflected back at her in the form of such a familiar double, perhaps Nelly will also better understand herself: her quietness, her loneliness, her curiosity. Even her childlike interest in building a fort out of branches in the woods seems inherited from a mother who, as a child, does the same.

Petite Maman revolves around this exploration of identity in relation to a known and loved “other.” What does it mean to be a mother and what does it mean to be a daughter? How much are the two intertwined? How can you know someone so intimately and, at the same time, never fully know them? Where do they end and you begin?


I see myself and my mother in Nelly and Marion, as I’d imagine many mothers and daughters might. Their joyful chatter as they make crêpes together is perhaps more chaotic but no less joyful than the rhythm my mother and I get in when we cook together. “We make a great team,” I say every time.

While I get older, my mother doesn’t necessarily seem to; sometimes it feels like we might eventually meet in the middle. I have grown to see her as a whole person—like Marion, like any of us, she’s really just a child inside of an adult. We’re both still trying to figure life out.

Late in the film, as the girls play dress-up, Marion confides that she wants to be an actress. “Really?” Nelly asks. Her face betrays incredulity and delight; this aspiration seems so different from the stoic, private grown-up she knows. My mother has spent her career in health policy and consulting, but she wants to be a writer. Twenty years ago, she taught me how to read; now I show her how to write a pitch and assuage her imposter syndrome (perhaps the most universal symptom of being a writer).

My mother and I also share similarly wired brains, prone to worrying about the future. On the morning that Nelly and child-Marion say goodbye, Marion is scheduled to have an operation at the hospital, one she has expressed anxiety about before. “It will all go well,” Nelly says seriously, with all the certainty of her knowledge of the future. I think my mother and I both wish we could say such a thing to each other and know it to be true.

Sometimes, I can’t shake the feeling that my growth as a person is intrinsically tied to hers, for better and for worse. If she, forty years older than I am, still worries about what other people think of her, then maybe I also always will. If she can buck the inertia of decades of desk jobs and actually get her writing out there, then I can make it work, too. It feels like whatever path I take through life, I’ll really just be following the one she already forged. Standing in the woods after Nelly tells child Marion who she is, Marion asks, “You come from the future?” Nelly thinks for a moment before replying, “I come from the path behind you.”


Sciamma’s decision to cast Marion and Nelly with twin actresses Gabrielle and Joséphine Sanz moves me. Whether or not I’ve always realized it, my sense of self has primarily existed not on a linear spectrum between me and my mother, but on a plane composed of three points—myself, my mother, and my twin sister.

When I watch Nelly and Marion running through the woods together, I remember similar romps with my own sister. When they lie in bed and whisper to each other, I recall when I first got a new queen bed as a child; I invited my twin to spend the night in my room instead of her own, and we whispered until dawn out of sheer delight. When they dress up and pretend to be adults, I think of the stories we’d imagine together and the plays we’d put on in our basement. Sometimes, we would be accompanied in our adventures by a third friend, but always, at the end of the day there were—and still are—the two of us.

Having and being a twin can feel like a strange dance of sorts. We highlight our distinctions but defend our similarities. She wears her hair short while I wear mine long (why would we want to look identical?), but we borrow each other’s clothes sometimes (why must we look different?). I want to delineate what makes us individuals (the ways we express ourselves, relate to others, pursue our passions), but I want to relish the things we have in common with each other and no one else. When I meet people on my own, I sometimes find myself saying “We” instead of “I.” She’s my role model and I want to be more like her, but I also want to be strikingly, unmistakably different. Even now, it’s hard to articulate what being a twin is like, not because I’ve never known anything different, but because it’s too close to my heart for me to get a good look.

Nelly’s longing to understand her mother, herself, and the ways they overlap is poignantly familiar. I sometimes feel like I don’t know where I end and my mother or my sister begins; we are so beautifully, complicatedly intertwined. And yet, at the same time, there will always be parts of each other we will never fully understand, despite our closeness.


Elaborating on the idea of Petite Maman as a time travel story, Sciamma described her film as “a journey without machines or vehicles” where “the film itself is the [time] machine and, more precisely, its editing.” The most magical moment of Petite Maman—a film nestled solidly within the genre of magical realism—occurs as Nelly’s father tucks her into bed one night. “Let’s activate teleporting to tomorrow,” he says. With the flick of the bedroom light, Sciamma instantly cuts to the fort in the forest on the next day. This one cut displays such a childlike delight in what filmmaking can do: transcend time and space in pursuit of meaning and emotion.

It’s cinema at its most basic and most enchanting—the rapid juxtaposition of two images to create meaning not found in either on its own. It’s effective because it makes us momentarily aware again of the filmic medium itself, the mechanics by which this story is made possible. There is no diegetic explanation given for how Nelly is able to encounter her mother as a child—no portal, no time machine, no hints that it was all a dream or wishful thinking. If there’s any answer at all, it’s simple: the magic is film. By the careful construction of a set in a studio and a fort in a forest, by the casting of two sisters, and by the precise splicing of image next to image, Nelly and Marion can meet. Past and future become “right now,” absence becomes presence.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully convey to my mother or my sister or anyone else I love how grateful I am for the times and places and ways our lives have overlapped. Sometimes it feels like the only way I’ll get close is by sharing films and art and the words I write about them. It’s a love language of sorts, an attempt to show the people I love that everywhere I look, I’m reminded of them.

The night before Nelly and child-Marion separate for the last time, Marion asks, “Did I want you?”

“Yes,” Nelly responds with certainty.

Marion replies, “I’m not surprised.. Because I’m already thinking about you.”

I’m already thinking about you. I’m always thinking about you.