November 3, 2021


Practical magic: ‘Petite Maman’ and ‘Undine’

By Michael Sun
Image of Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman by Céline Sciamma. Image © Lilies Films

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman by Céline Sciamma. Image © Lilies Films

The new films by Céline Sciamma and Christian Petzold share a dreamlike sensibility

Try as they might, few have successfully bottled the mood of the past 18 months on screen. Michael Bay responded to these unprecedented times by producing an entirely precedented tale of meathead machismo personified by an identikit hunk desperate for survival against the dystopian shade of one “COVID-23”. The creators of Black Mirror ventured down the parody route in a mockumentary filled with gormless quips about Zoom meetings and Karens. Others made lockdown rom-com after lockdown rom-com after lockdown rom-com.

Perhaps we can attribute the predicaments of these so-called COVID films to their overbearing earnestness. Without enough distance – without any distance – from a pandemic that’s still ongoing, the art created about it feels gimmicky: tired at best, offensively insensitive at worst. To acknowledge COVID is to render a film facile, like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to an in-joke that was never funny in the first place.

It’s no surprise, then, that the work that best mirrors the pandemic experience bears no mention of our conditions at all. I’m thinking of the countless viewing lists spawned over the past two years, offering a smorgasbord of selections from previous eras that nonetheless contain prescient visions of isolation and social distancing – the heady, suffocating anxiety of The Virgin Suicides, say, or the long-distance romantic metaphor of Her

A pair of showings at this year’s Sydney Film Festival craft themselves in this image, though they aren’t concerned with the muck of a pandemic existence so much as they hint at the hidden reveries of another COVID phenomenon: lockdown dreams. Stripped of the organic chaos of life beyond our four walls, our brains began to conduct a sort of mutiny, concocting increasingly fantastical scenarios while we slept to remedy the void of our waking hours. Dreamers reported radioactive lizards, demon orgies and whales in swimming pools. (I dreamt about the most terrifying thing of all: returning long-lost possessions to an ex.)

This surreal logic pervades the latest films by Céline Sciamma and Christian Petzold, flung across the Pacific from the Berlinale, where both first premiered. Sciamma’s Petite Maman and Petzold’s Undine – whether by design or otherwise – play like lockdown dreams, rupturing our practised mundanity with their subtle, fleeting dalliances with magical realism, sometimes so quiet as to slip by completely unnoticed. Call it a sleight of hand.

Like the most unsettling dreams – the ones that feel clairvoyant or haunted by memories from a past life – Petite Maman originates from a place of reality. Eight-year-old Nelly’s grandmother has just died, and we open on her farewelling the other residents of the nursing home in the precocious manner of a child who’s far more comfortable with an older generation than others her own age. “Au revoir,” she intones again and again, before reaching her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), alone and grieving in a room shadowed by the spectre of death. A final check of the now-empty quarters ensues, and then it’s time to go – with dad in tow – towards an old cottage in the woods that Nelly’s grandmother once owned.

The drive there feels like a voyage, as if leaving the world behind for an enchanted realm, whipping past a blur of foliage so satisfyingly autumnal that you can practically hear the crunch of leaves underfoot. It’s amid these woods that Petite Maman’s fairytale plays out. As the parents pack up the cottage’s remaining belongings the next day, Nelly is left to her own devices (she is French, after all), traipsing out of the house and into the surrounding forest like a modern-day Red Riding Hood.

Here, she meets a girl stunningly similar in appearance to herself. In reality, they’re played by twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, though Sciamma’s tricks of the light may leave you wondering whether they’re actually identical – an effect that only heightens the uncanny mystery of it all. The girl’s name is Marion, she says, and no sooner do they develop a fast, free-wheeling friendship than other strange similarities begin to emerge. Marion’s mother shares the same walking stick as Nelly’s late grandmother. Marion’s abode, too, is identical to Nelly’s cottage, just with a few extra signs of life. The question unveils like a revelation: has the forest become the locus for a wrinkle in time?

Petite Maman’s press notes cite a Studio Ghibli influence, noticeable in the innocent giddiness of the affair and the way that conventions of reality, of time – that old thing – simply give way in favour of a dreamland where the lives of mother and daughter converge on an even playing field, both of them aged eight. But one might sense another Japanese director in Sciamma’s influences, too: Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose early filmography treated issues of spirituality as plainly – and bureaucratically – as any other mere mortal matter. (In 1998’s After Life, the process of limbo is rendered as a very Earthly way station teeming with guidance counsellors and red tape.)

Likewise, Sciamma pays no special attention to the why or how of the matter. The time warp doesn’t pose any butterfly-effect threats to the fabric of present day – as it might in a sci-fi outing – and nor do the girls seem particularly alarmed once they realise the nature of their relationship. “You came from the future?” the young Marion asks. “I came from the path behind you,” comes the insouciant reply, as Nelly points matter-of-factly towards her abode. After her last feature – Portrait of Lady on Fire, the kind of deliriously acclaimed work that guarantees its director bigger, bougier productions – it’s telling that Sciamma has opted for such an unfussy film, burrowing into intimate settings with a tiny cast who remain nonchalant despite their characters’ mystical circumstances. It’s magic writ small.

Petzold mirrors Sciamma’s penchant for practical magic in Undine, ostensibly based on the old German myth of a water nymph doomed to return to her aquatic roots by an unfaithful partner – like The Little Mermaid, but made macabre. Viewers unaware of the folktale might not be any wiser by the film’s conclusion, however, so elliptical is Petzold’s storytelling, which elides the melodrama of such an ancient betrayal for something far richer, far more surreal.

Present-day Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian by training, though her day job is as a museum guide, reciting spiels about a display of miniature models of Berlin to groups of wealthy, not-always-interested visitors. Perhaps the real tragedy here is that she’s given up life as a lady of the lake to be a shift worker on land – and for a man, no less, who says he’s taken a new lover. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” a steely eyed Undine tells him, not so much a threat as a fact of her existence. “You know that.”

He doesn’t meet his demise until much later in the film, and there are no signs that Undine possesses spectral powers at all until later still. Instead, Petzold deliberately withholds any trace of watery mysticism in favour of a new terrestrial romance. Having shed her betrayer like dead tissue, Undine chances upon a new love interest in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an oafish, doe-eyed admirer who moonlights as a deep-sea diver. Their first encounter is the meet-cute of a bizarro-world rom-com: boy meets girl, nearby fish tank spontaneously explodes, boy and girl get drenched in the deluge and lay there perfectly still, glistening as if reborn.

Any mildly superstitious viewer will recognise a relationship that begins with shattered glass as an omen, though Petzold keeps the foregone conclusion at bay just long enough for Undine and Christoph to entangle themselves in the sticky web of new love – the sky a little bluer, Christoph’s risky aquatic expeditions more charged with life-or-death thrill, especially when he encounters a terrifyingly grotesque catfish dubbed Big Gunther (or, more alliteratively, Grosse Gunther). Time operates as it does in a dream: like a helix, looping and collapsing into itself. Undine repeats the same monologues about Berlin’s history over and over; she zips back and forth on the same train line to Christoph’s regional outpost so many times we begin to lose track of their love affair. Has it been five days or five months? Does it even matter? 

It’s not quite the time warp of Sciamma’s imagination, but Undine does share with Petite Maman an easiness to how it treats its magic, not lingering on moments of grand fantasy but rather dissolving its mysticism into the ripples of reality until it’s difficult to discern the edges of either. Like Petite Maman, too, Undine occupies a low-key position in its director’s oeuvre – at least against Petzold’s last-decade trilogy of cross-continental refugee escapes and noir-ish post-war epics in Barbara, Phoenix and Transit (the latter also starring Undine’s Beer and Rogowski). 

There’s a relative introversion to Petzold’s latest, then; a shyness to the narrative that makes Undine’s tragedy and eventual re-emergence all the more beguiling. Her fate is sealed from the outset. We know, by the end, that she’s returned to the water whence she came. And yet when we glimpse her shadowy silhouette one final time, it still feels as if we’ve seen a ghost – the kind of otherworldly communion that leaves us unconvinced of our own reality.

Another ghost story: Petite Maman and Undine were both slated to screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this year before its in-cinema component was scuppered by lockdowns. Swept from the ashes and revived now in Sydney, their resurrection might feel a little surreal – the spectre of cinema peering its head above water to disrupt our waking lives for just a moment.


Petite Maman and Undine are showing at the Sydney Film Festival, which runs until November 21.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

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