The alternative film review

Malcolm Lewis on Karim Aïnouz and Céline Sciamma's most recent contributions to parallel cinema.

Petite Maman

directed and written by Céline Sciamma

72 minutes

★★★★✩

Sciamma’s latest feature both continues and steps aside from the themes of her earlier films. Tomboy, Waterlilies and Girlhood make up a coming-of-age ‘trilogy’ about gender and sexual disconnection, about conflicts in moving on from childhood, being a teen, and who we might be as adults. Petite Maman takes us right back to childhood, to Nelly, an eight-year-old girl whose grandma has just died. It’s a short film, shot quickly during lockdown by a small production team. Yet its ambition and reach resonate, dealing as it does with what connects us, how our lives pass and turn out as they do, the tenor they have.

Nelly has driven with her mum to her grandma’s house to sort through possessions and clear it. In the woods alongside the house, she meets Marion, who’s her age, and is building a shelter out of branches. Straightaway there’s a rapport and we learn that Marion is Nelly’s own mother, at the age of eight, living in the same house but some 25 years earlier. It somehow works and takes you along, maybe because both Nelly and Marion accept each other.

They’re friends, they play, they have a lot of fun. But we look across the generations too, backwards and forwards, with a sense of wonder that one’s parents were once unknowing and unformed, and that we can’t know our children’s destinies. The girls’ awareness of disappointment and loss gives it a grittiness. There’s no great reveal, no clever speeches, no literariness. It’s unpretentious, unshowy, beautifully acted by twin sisters, economically written and simply directed. 

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

directed and co-written by Karim Aïnouz

139 minutes

★★★

This isn’t the flamboyant Brazilian melodrama you might expect, though the plot has its extravagances. Set in 1950s’ Rio, it’s about the two daughters of a conservative, controlling baker. Guida, the younger, flaky, flighty one runs off with a Greek sailor. That makes it impossible for the older, serious Euridice to also head to Europe to train to be a concert pianist – at the Vienna conservatoire, no less. When Guida returns pregnant, and unmarried, her father kicks her out of the family home.

Euridice marries a post-office clerk and eventually has two children. Guida and her baby move in with a tough but caring former prostitute, who’s become a kind of neighbourhood childminder. Guida dabbles in prostitution, then gets a job in a workshop. Neither sister knows about the other and believe their parents’ fabrications. Euridice thinks Guida is in Greece; Guida thinks Euridice is in Vienna.

For the greater part, the film is well-judged, pacy and sufficiently grounded, socially and materially, to convince. There’s a poignant scene in a posh restaurant that reveals their different social positions. The sisters’ children, unknown to each other, meet, and as Guida leaves, Euridice enters.

It has a marvellous coda when we jump 50 years or so. Euridice discovers the letters Guida had sent to her over the years, care of the family home. Neither her father nor her husband had passed them on to her.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is a revealing and moving drama about women’s obeisance, suffering and defiance in a patriarchal society – and their strength, loyalty and solidarity.