Two films–a profound fairy tale and a portrait of a design visionary—well worth seeing
Petite Maman and Mau
By Marc Glassman
(France, 72 min.)
Celine Sciamma, director and writer
Starring: Josephine Sanz (Nelly), Gabrielle Sanz (Marion), Stephane Varupenne (father), Nina Meurisse (mother), Margo Abascal (grandmother)
One of the most remarkable films of this or any year, Petite Maman (Little Mother would be the English translation but it is being distributed with its French title intact), is a magical tale of a daughter’s deep relationship with her mother. As the film opens, 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) is embracing residents at a senior’s residence, saying goodbye because her grandmother has died. Her mother Marion takes her back to the old family home, to join her husband to pack the place up for the last time. Nelly and Marion spend the evening reading books and there’s a lovely sense of what it’s like to be in an old-fashioned house with your parents, which will change forever when you leave.
In the morning, Nelly goes out for a walk in the local woods and finds little Marion, a girl of her own age, who immediately accepts her as a friend. The two begin to build a fort next to a big tree, have a great time, bond, and eventually go back to Marion’s house, which Nelly realizes is her mother’s home, but at a different time. Slowly we discover, as does Nelly, that she’s in a different time and place, one that can’t be explained. Somehow, she’s spending time with her mother as a little girl and being offered food by her deceased grandmother.
Terrified, she flees through the forest, only to arrive back in the present, with her father ready to take care of her since her mother has departed, trying to deal by herself with her mother’s death. The next morning, Nelly goes out to the woods again and meets with Marion, who now treats as a best friend. As the days pass, the two build the fort and spend time in their once and future home.
Petite Maman has the cool effortless approach of the best fairy tales. With no special effects, the brilliant director and writer Celine Sciamma takes us into a liminal space, which exists but defies all logic. How can a daughter spend time and become the best friend of her grieving mother? What makes it possible for her to meet her grandmother? There’s no explanation offered, nor should there be. This is magic.
Fantasy can be about monsters—dragons, vampires, werewolves—or it can be truly uncanny, defying logic with tales of artistry and resonance. Sciamma has crafted a story of real power with psychological implications. The bond between mothers and daughters is often full of love but laced with anger and fear and an intense need for reassurance. By playing out a fantasy in which a mother and daughter get to act as sisters for a brief time, Sciamma has made a story with emotional depth and—dare it be said—a non-saccharine, totally deserved, sweetness.
Giving the film even more resonance is the casting of twin sisters Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz as the daughter and mother: they look so similar and are completely comfortable with each other but are just different enough to make you question who you’re seeing. I love it that in an interview, the two refer to each other as “sisters born on the same day,” not twins. Exactly.
When writing or talking about films with fantasy elements, it’s hard not to be overly enthusiastic when they’re made with style and intelligence. Tales of the fantastic are everywhere these days, from the horror of Stephen King to the Game of Thrones and its antecedent, Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. Petite Maman isn’t a hyperbolic spectacle but it’s a marvel in its own way. There’s a moment when Nelly asks Marion if she was a wanted child and she’s assured that she is, and that Marion’s quiet sorrow is just her nature and has nothing to do with her daughter. It’s enough to make you cry but the scene is handled so delicately that you simply accept and admire it for its simplicity.
Petite Maman is a modern-day fairy tale, made with profundity and artistry. It’s a film that is easy to love and embrace.
(USA, 77 min.)
Jono Bergmann and Benji Bergmann, directors
Featuring: Bruce Mau, Bisi Williams, Rem Koolhaas, James Lahey, Jim Shedden
Bruce Mau is a local hero, so it’s sad but no surprise that the visionary designer now lives in Chicago and is likely more famous in the U.S. than Canada. Mau is the subject of a stylish eponymous feature documentary, which explores his family roots in Northern Ontario and brilliant early career in Toronto, but ultimately focuses on his significance globally. Which is only fair—but at least in Toronto and Canada, it is appropriate to hail him as an Ontario boy, like his colleague Frank Gehry, who has gone on to be an important figure throughout the world. And to endorse with some qualifications, a film on his controversial design philosophy.
Full disclosure: I knew Bruce quite well when he was starting out in 1980s Toronto as part of the arts and cultural scene. He was brash, confident, funny and filled with big ideas and a great smile—wonderful company whom you would want to cheer on to great success. Bruce first established himself as a book designer then. He wasn’t just a good designer, he was a great one, instantly. His first major success was creating the look of Zone Books, a major publisher of cultural theory, which is still going strong over 35 years later. The Mau design, still kept up, makes the books elegant and simple, easy to read, gorgeous on the page, with superb covers that are truly artistic.
He established a design firm and was soon working with the Art Gallery of Ontario on a new look and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, a park in Toronto—and, well, lots more. He achieved global prominence with the publication of the massive book on architecture, design and cities S, M, L, XL in 1995. A collaboration with the esteemed architect Rem Koolhaas, the book combined everything from fairy tales to complicated illustrations to manifestos and was packaged so beautifully that it became an absolute favourite world-wide for taste-makers and progressive thinkers in political and cultural spheres.
Since that time, Mau’s work hasn’t been just about creating a great end product. It’s about process and thought—and to be fair, he’s always felt that way. But that’s where things can get a bit ephemeral. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what success is like in a Bruce Mau project because it’s so much about philosophy with not necessarily that much specifically being achieved. For example, he’s worked with Disney and Coca Cola on revising how they present themselves to the world; things may have changed somewhat but not necessarily in the utopian manner Mau may have wished it to be. Coca Cola has certainly reduced its production of plastic bottles but has its “live positively” concept really changed much, even within the corporation?
The film which the Bergmann brothers have made, Mau, advocates for the designer’s visionary attitudes, showing his process in a favourable light. That’s understandable, of course. They’re attracted to Mau as a sincere and passionate speaker and spend most of the film’s time on his projects—not just the ones already mentioned but also his attempts to brand Guatemala and Denmark as global entities, an ongoing plan to redesign Mecca for the next 1000 years and a very successful re-thinking of the Seattle Public Library, which actually affected the redesign in many such institutions around the world. They’re clear that one of the biggest projects, the controversial Massive Change traveling exhibit, hasn’t effectively communicated its message to the world, although it’s really entertaining to experience.
The big intervention in Mau—and Bruce admitted to me that he was a bit surprised by it—was to have the designer return to his birthplace on the outskirts of Sudbury, ostensibly to confront the demons of his past—parents who didn’t support him and a childhood filled with people who could never understand him. It’s all quite psychological and it may make sense, but Mau does seem quite well adjusted—happily married with a loving family. At any rate, it marks the film as being unique, and not mere hagiography. And it shows Bruce Mau, even at 60, and very successful, as being a good sport, collaborating on a film that couldn’t have happened without him.
Should people see Mau? As I wrote up top, he’s a local hero. You ought to support a film based on his life and artistic good times, at least by seeing it.