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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Céline Sciamma’s beautiful fairy tale reverie is occasioned by the dual mysteries of memory and the future. Nelly is the eight-year-old daughter of Marion. The latter is under enormous stress. Marion’s mother has just died in a care home, from long-term complications of a hereditary bone disorder, which Marion herself had to avoid with a painful operation when she was about Nelly’s age. Young Nelly artlessly asks her mum if she can keep her grandmother’s cane, and Marion blankly agrees. Then Marion and her partner take Nelly on a difficult journey to her late mother’s home, where she grew up, and the memories come flooding back – particularly that of a secret hut she built in the woods adjoining the house. Marion is overwhelmed with grief and leaves Nelly alone with her dad. Nelly, being an only child, like her mum, is used to solitude.
Playing in the woods she comes across what appears to be a half-finished hut in a clearing. A girl waves happily to her, asking for help making it. She is the mirror image of Nelly and announces that her name is … Marion. After playing together, they go back to Marion’s house, which appears to be an eerie mirror-image of her Nelly’s mother’s childhood home. And there Nelly meets Marion’s kindly, withdrawn, thirtysomething mum, who walks painfully with a cane.
It is a ghost story, or a parable, played with realist calm? “Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide,” says Nelly to her new best friend. “There’s just no one to tell them to.” Their secret is confided to us: the audience. Perhaps Nelly’s mum was as lonely as a child as Nelly is now. Perhaps Nelly has always wanted her mum to be a friend, to speak to her as directly and simply as she would a friend her own age. And perhaps the adult Marion has felt the same thing.
There is something eternally strange about the simple fact that your parents were once the same age as you, had the same worries and fears and thoughts as you; and crucially, the same inability to see into the future – the future which is you.