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Joséphine Sanz, left, and Gabrielle Sanz enjoy the company of each during a time slip in Petite Maman.Associated Press

I love the collective consciousness of television and film. An idea is aloft in the zeitgeist. Interpreters catch it. Then something happens in real life, the idea and the moment find each other, and voila – we’re suddenly awash in work that is not only rich but feels especially relevant.

Lately I’m seeing so many series and films that focus on the importance of saying goodbye. Many, of course, were under way before March, 2020, but these two pandemic years, with their excess of goodbyes – and missed goodbyes – have sharpened that sweet stab of recognition.

Better Things (FX) just concluded its heart-aching, five-season run with a goodbye sequence that breaks the fourth wall. “We had fun, didn’t we?” Sam (Pamela Adlon, the show’s co-creator, writer and director) asks her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie, who was actually filmed in her native England because of COVID). “Didn’t we just,” Phil replies. Then, in a succession of joyous shots, each character looks into the camera – into our eyes – and hollers, “I love you!” Like everything else in her series, Adlon knew what we needed and went for it, in her specific, spectacular way.

Life and Beth (Disney+) ended its first season with a funeral redo, as Beth (Amy Schumer, the show’s creator) realizes that she was too stunned by her mother’s sudden death to say goodbye properly the first time around. The thrilling series Station Eleven, prescient about a global pandemic and its aftermath, is all about the importance of saying goodbye, especially the haunting seventh and 10th episodes. As the lead character Kirsten (the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis) says, we need to say goodbye so that we can come back.

And now Petite Maman, a film as compact and brilliant as a jewel, is opening in select Canadian cities. Written and directed by Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), it begins with a string of goodbyes, as eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose maternal grandmother has just died, bids farewell to the residents of her care home. Then a startling hello happens: While Nelly’s parents pack up the grandmother’s country house, Nelly wanders into the surrounding forest, where she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Josephine’s twin sister). Marion is not only Nelly’s mother’s name – she’s Nelly’s mother, also age 8.

The “how” is never explained; it doesn’t need to be. Nelly accepts that she and Marion have a few days together within this blip in time, and she makes the most of it, playing, giggling and even spending a few moments with Marion’s mother – not dead now, but warm, and younger than Nelly ever knew her. The few questions the girls allow each other are simple in their delivery, but run fathoms deep: “Do I want you?” Marion asks. Nelly answers yes. “Good,” Marion says. “Because I’m already thinking about you.”

“It was a very particular writing experience, to craft such a natural but careful ride,” Sciamma, who is French, said in a video interview. Her voice is rich and thoughtful; her gaze into the lens steady and calm. The idea came to her “super-fast, like a bulb lighting,” she continues. “I had an image – two girls building a fort made of branches – and a question: ‘If I met my mother as a kid, would she be my sister?’”

She knew she wanted to cast sisters as Nelly and Marion, but discovering the Sanzes was its own piece of magic. (They don’t call themselves twins – they are “sisters born on the same day.”) “I was looking for a strong equality between the characters,” Sciamma says. “I was exploring the idea of something horizontal – that there is no hierarchy just because of chronology. Why would someone older be more important than someone younger? That idea of hierarchy is cultural.”

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Director Celine Sciamma said she hopes the film will be 'consoling, healing, for whoever receives it.'Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Sciamma, 43, is an outspoken voice in French cinema, and Petite Maman embodies some of her wider thinking about the art form. “Cinema is democratic as an ambition, because it is an art that is officially trying to be seen by a lot of people in a short amount of time,” she says. “You’re a failure if you haven’t. And for the filmmaker, that’s not about money, because that’s not how we make our money.”

She chose the forest as her milieu for Petite Maman “because it’s the most democratic wild landscape,” she says. “Everyone knows the forest; not everyone knows the sea or the mountains. That’s why our fairy tales and myths are rooted in the forest, I think. It’s a common space.”

As well, Sciamma hopes the film will be “consoling, healing, for whoever receives it,” she says. “I tried to craft it so that whether your parent is alive or dead, whether you have a good or bad relationship with them, you will feel seen by the film, and you can build a bridge between the film and your story.”

The importance of saying goodbye and thank-you runs through all of Sciamma’s work, she says: “When asked, ‘What would you do with a time machine?’ people always come up with this tourism in the past, or this egoistic thing that you would be an activist, that you would kill someone bad, that you would have an impact. I find that really weird,” she says with a small laugh. “When maybe what you should do is go back to a recent time and say sorry to someone.”

Because they are “little sculptures of time,” films allow us to do that, Sciamma says. “Films are always looking for the most perfect goodbye: the perfect ending. But in Petite Maman, I add a layer to that. I give the characters an opportunity to say goodbye, even though things are over,” that is, the grandmother is dead. “I’m not trying to give you the moral, ‘Don’t forget to say goodbye!’ It’s not about being a better person in the future. It’s to give you the power to reflect on, to be peaceful with, things of the past.”

Films are about memories, Sciamma concludes, and if they work, they give you new memories. “Within that, you can maybe find some new way of thinking about things,” she says. “Petite Maman is made so that you can create new memories with people who are not here any more.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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