Out of the Celluloid Closet

Petite Maman and Thelma and Louise: An Unlikely Queer Double Feature

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Whether by design or sheer happenstance, The Criterion Collection’s release of Petite Maman alongside Thelma & Louise is a provocative one for queer viewers. Though made decades and oceans apart, there are remarkable resonances between the two films that amplify the queerness of both.

All other queernesses in both films proceed first from a queerness of place: Both take place in liminal spaces, archetypal settings between worlds where anything might happen. The twisted forest where the two girls meet in Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman fulfills its classic role as a space where social time stands still, where identities get lost and then regained. But this is not necessarily a threatening forest: Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) end up finding solace and happiness in the woods. Rather than combat the elements or fall victim to them, the girls in Petite Maman embrace the woods and learn the lessons its strangeness has to offer.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) similarly embrace the open road in similar ways once they realize it’s too late to turn back. This road through the Southwest is a transitional wasteland filled with outcasts and isolationists that has no endpoint. Their experience driving through the desert is more classically harrowing, replete with wolves (and pigs), but they soon realize that life on the run is preferable to life in prison or incarcerated by patriarchy. Criterion’s impressive 4K restoration of Ridley Scott’s landmark film lets us see the Southwest desert in all its awesome glory. In this wide and hostile expanse, two best friends come alive, to themselves and each other. 

The queerness of these landscapes supports the unusual form of these films. They provide the foundation for how images relate to one another, how the scenes relate, and ultimately how the characters relate. We’re dropped into the world of Thelma & Louise with the characters already fully developed. Anything is possible in this universe of escape, and it’s the openness of the road movie itself that gives the film its (literally) open-ended structure. Ever the maestro of cat-and-mouse stories, Ridley Scott’s film is one that chases visual and narrative horizons from beginning to end.

The closed and obscured forest works similarly in Petite Maman, to contain the story’s world and narrative. Like the woods, it’s easy to get turned around and a bit disoriented within Sciamma’s visual storytelling. The visual clues appear at first in glances, like we’re peeking at the story through a thicket. As she moves us in closer, we get a clearer perspective on what it is we’re truly seeing. 

All four women are literal and figurative “babes in the woods.” They enter their liminal spaces completely unaware of the strangeness that’s about to befall them. But, unlike the children in the famous ballad, none let their environments get the best of them. 

Within these queer spaces, queer relationships can form and become the crux of these remarkable films. Within the time loop forest, Nelly and Marion’s friendship grows beyond conventional understanding and intimacy once Nelly realizes the truth of her alternate reality. “I’m your daughter” is a very queer thing to say to someone the same age as you. Yet the sudden strangeness of the situation doesn’t frighten the girls, but leads to greater and more complex intimacies. “I’m already thinking about you,” Marion admits to Nelly when asked if she minds knowing that she’ll have a child at a young age. The new strange family dynamic prompts the girls to play their own kind of house in which Nelly is an inspector questioning Marion, the mysterious widow, and the two eventually “have a baby” in doll form. Nelly and Marion have a queer dialectical relationship with revolving roles of nurturer and nurtured, guardian and charge. Each one gets to be the little mother of the title.

“I’m your daughter” is a very queer thing to say to someone the same age as you.

Feeling the dynamics between these relationships is only possible because the actresses have established a true intimacy between themselves. Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz’s presence is extraordinary for their young age. Sisters form unique bonds with each other, but it’s a whole other thing to recreate it for a camera. It certainly speaks to Sciamma’s skill at directing young performances, as she’s done before with Tomboy (2011), but most of the work rests on these young actresses. The final third of the film demands a complex psychology and relationship that exists outside of normative bounds. Through a keen understanding of the script and situation, these two actresses at the very beginning of their lives and careers are able to shatter conventions and create a relationship that is queer in the sense that it’s outside normative bounds of space and time.

The intensity of Susan Sarandon and Gena Davis chemistry in Thelma & Louise is likewise legendary. For the film to work, it requires enough grace in each actor to sublimate themselves at times in order to lift the other up. Like Nelly and Marion, Thelma and Louise go through their own cycle of roles. Louise’s grand act to save Thelma binds the two in a unique way and begins a revolution within their relationship. From that point forward, they will have to nurture each other in order to survive. Louise will take over after Thelma’s assault, and through her growth Thelma will eventually take the wheel for both of them. As they go on their journey together, they reveal their raw humanity to each other, for each other. Their final kiss is always a topic of conversation, but if anything it is a testament to the intensity of their circumstance and the profound depths of intimacy that open up when you’re on the run with someone.

Petite Maman and Thelma & Louise offer opportunities to consider queerness of space, form, and relationships in ways that are beyond sexuality and desire. They are queer because they defy the laws of nature and society. By using liminal landscapes, complimentary cinematic forms, and intimate relationships, they become distinctive works of art which encourage us to take hands and leap off the cliff of sexuality-defined queerness. They take us into the beyond, and we’re happy to follow.♦

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