Mothers & Daughters

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Lucy Virgen

“What were you like when you were my age?” is a question daughters commonly ask their mothers. When girls are young, they find it amusing to think of their mothers—respected figures in their lives—as child-like versions of themselves, and act like them, without any concern for hygiene, nutritional value of what they eat, or having good manners. As teenagers, they look for empathy from their crushes, friends, and relations, and simply try to fit in.

Hollywood has explored this mother-daughter relationship many times with the “walk a mile in my shoes” formula. Some magic and a lot of special effects made a young Jodie Foster trade places with her mother Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday (Gary Nelson, 1976); the 2003 remake is a less memorable version, starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, directed by Mark Waters.  Whether because of their performances or their screenplays, both films are better than their masculine counterparts: Vice Versa (Brian Gilbert, 1988), Like Father Like Son (Rod Daniel, 1987) and 18 Again! (Paul Flaherty, 1988).

At the 2021 Berlin Film Festival Competition, two works with different perspectives, but with a shared interest for the delicate mother-daughter relationship, premiered: Petite Maman, directed by Celine Sciamma, and Memory Box, directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.

Petite Maman is a deceptively simple film about two weeks during the summer of 2020, when eight-year-old Nelly’s grandmother dies; later Nelly meets another eight-year-old girl named (just like her mother) Marion. After a few encounters Nelly realizes this eight-year-old is her mother at that age. The film does not concern itself with any time travel explanations, nor avoids interactions with other characters to avert interfering with the space-time continuum. Both kids come and go between each other’s time and introduce one to the other’s parents living at that time as “a friend who lives nearby.” In one scene, the mother-as-a-child asks her daughter: “Do you come from the future?” The answer is direct and innocent: “I come from the other side of the forest.”

Memory Box uses a large parcel from Beirut, full of mementos, as a storytelling device: letters, photographs, recordings, drawings, all delivered to the Montreal home of Maia, the mother, and her teenage daughter Alex.  The box was sent by the parents of the recently deceased Lisa, a friend of Maia. It contains all the correspondence between the two friends at the time of the Lebanese civil war, when they were both teenagers. Maia refuses to even open the box, but Alex begins to explore it and get to know her mother when she was her age.

Both films are anchored in the daughters’ need to understand their mothers. For Nelly, it’s her mother’s melancholy; for Alex, her mother’s past life in Lebanon.

In both cases, maternal grandmothers act as support between generations, offering tidbits of information to their granddaughters. Neither of these films is a “walk a mile in my shoes” story. They both speak of the need to understand the times and circumstances in the lives of the mothers.  Alex wants to understand her mother’s silence as well as get to know her Lebanese heritage; yes, there was a war, but what about Maia’s life? Her school? Did she have a boyfriend? Other friends? Was she afraid during the bombings? What about the idolized grandfather who died during the war?

In Petite Maman, Nelly lives in the same house where her mother lived as a child, but with different furniture; nevertheless, she wants to know more about her mother’s illness and the surgeries she had to endure as a child.

After the international success of director Céline Sciamma with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman was one of the most eagerly awaited films at this year’s Berlinale. It was shot during the pandemic in Cergy-Pontoise, in the Île de France, using a minimal cast and crew.  Some audiences might be disappointed because for first time in her career Sciamma is not a disrupter, as in her early films, or an auteur with a defined artistic style as in her recent work. This portrait is not only a film about—or for—children. The director has an extremely delicate eye for this mother-daughter relationship and for each kind of audience there is a lot more to discover than a nice, pretty film. Casting twins for the mother-as-a-child and the daughter roles, the love and complicity were there from the beginning; with some guidance they are a credible and lovable pair.  

Memory Box is the fourth fiction feature by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, who together shot some documentaries and short films. They are also plastic artists with works in several museums. All this background, as well as some of Joana’s personal letters during the Lebanese civil war, helps to construct the film as a multilayered scheme that simultaneously considers the exile’s nostalgia, the evident and hidden losses an armed conflict causes, and the continuance of heritage thru memories.

In both cases, music is especially important. Memory Box plays “One Way or Another” by Blondie several times, a great, catchy song to dance to, then and now. In Petite Maman there is a piece of specially composed “music from the future”—the actual name of the piece, as well as how the mother-as-a-child names it when she hears it for the first time. Mothers and daughters dance or sail with the music from the past and from the future, and know each other in the present, inspiring the audience to do the same.

Lucy Virgen
Edited by Robert Horton