Birth of a Mother:“Inside” and the Woman Born in Blood
Posted On December 21, 2021
Of all the films of the new French Extremity, none has intimidated me so much as Inside. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s film about two women battling for possession of an unborn baby has a reputation for unflinching and visceral brutality. Having experienced two cesarean births and two miscarriages, I worried the film would reopen too many old wounds. But something about Inside called to me. For more than a year I’d felt an almost primal urge to experience this vicious depiction of birth and the need to be a mother at all costs. So, on a sunny morning in early December, I gathered my courage and watched the film. Please pardon the pun, but I emerged from the experience feeling reborn. I felt such catharsis and validation for the brutality of my own birth stories. Though chilling, Inside’s final scene left me with a feeling of acceptance for the body I now have and a newfound love for the mother I have become even though I mourn for the girl I used to be.
Inside is a story of transformation. On the eve of Christmas, a holiday honoring a virgin birth, the film celebrates the brutal process of bringing new life into the world. Sarah (Alysson Paradis) and the Woman (Béatrice Dalle) who attempts to steal her baby are opposing sides of the same archetype, the Mother. Dressed in white, Sarah represents the purity prized in young women, sacred vessels carrying the promise of new life to be honored and protected. Wearing all black, the Woman is her opposite, having fulfilled the purpose of her desirability. A matron no longer valued by society for her own humanity, but for her ability to care for the next generation. Inside pits these classic female archetypes, Maiden and Matron, against one another examining the brutal battle to hold onto humanity throughout the process of producing another human being.
We meet Sarah in the aftermath of a car crash that has killed her partner, the father of her unborn child. Now alone and facing a life drastically different from the one she’d planned, she seems cold and withdrawn, reluctant to meet the child she will soon give birth to. Arriving home, she resigns herself to one last night of peace before her labor is induced on Christmas morning. We first see Sarah moments after the accident making it impossible to know her feelings about her pregnancy before losing the baby’s father. But a day away from birth, she seems to long for the future she had planned and miserable at the prospect of the life awaiting her. In the park, she looks longingly at a young couple playing with their child and in her studio, she fantasizes about her late partner lovingly caressing her belly. It’s understandable that she would dread giving birth to a daily reminder of the love she lost; a baby who will require significant care and attention which she must provide on her own. Though heartbreaking, it’s a refreshing characterization that honors the complexities of motherhood and the wide spectrum of emotions that accompany starting a family.
Sarah also seems nervous about the birth itself and the physical toll it will take on her body. Having fallen asleep while knitting, she dreams of milk spewing from her mouth followed by the emergence of a bloody baby. Her dream reveals a relatable fear, losing control of her own body during birth and in the months and years that follow. Breasts are no longer seen as objects of pleasure, but tools for the often-painful process of producing milk. Healing the wounds of birth will be secondary to caring for the needs of her new baby. While adorable, newborns require constant care and it’s easy to feel as if you’ve given your entire life in service to someone else.
When the Woman first knocks on Sarah’s door, she is a mystery. Standing in shadows, all Sarah knows is that she poses a threat. We learn in the final moments of the film that she was driving the other car involved in the crash. The Woman was also pregnant at the time although her baby did not survive. Sarah is surprised to learn this because she was told there were no survivors in the other car and we are left with the question of the Woman’s reality. Early in the film, she stands silently behind a sleeping Sarah, a picture of predatory menace. She’s wearing old fashioned clothes and almost seems to fade into the background. Her image is one of a puritanical portrait looming over Sarah; a specter of the traditional mother she will be expected to embody once her child arrives.
This image could also be viewed as an ultrasound. The birth of a baby not only brings new life, but creates a new mother as well. Maybe the Woman is a manifestation of the person Sarah fears she will become after losing her autonomy to the baby growing inside her. I’m not suggesting that the Woman herself is not real. Given the carnage she inflicts, she is without doubt, a physical presence in the story. But perhaps the Woman symbolizes society’s monstrous depiction of motherhood. Matrons, MILFs, and Mama Bears, those who have given birth have seemingly crossed a threshold of desirability, expected to wear more modest clothing and live subdued lives that revolve solely around protecting and caring for their children.
The Woman primarily uses scissors to enact her deadly plan. She not only stabs and slices, but uses the large steel blades to cut into the skin of Sarah’s belly. Though they serve multiple purposes, scissors are a tool associated with cutting fabric to design and sew clothing. It’s a fitting weapon for a woman obsessed with the appearance of motherhood. Given the violence she inflicts on Sarah and her baby, it could be strongly argued that the Woman is interested more in the status of motherhood than she is in actually mothering a child. While preparing to cut, she caresses Sarah’s body, seemingly entranced by the image of pregnancy and longing to experience it from the inside. Along with the scissors, she also uses weapons either found in Sarah’s home or brought by would-be rescuers: knitting needles, guns, pillows, and even a toaster. All weapons of domesticity, she uses the home, the traditionally reductive place for a woman, to cut and create the skin she believes will dress her for the role of mother.
The wounds she inflicts on Sarah are the marks of birth. Though she first attempts to cut Sarah’s naval, the first serious wound she inflicts is on Sarah’s mouth. Awakened by a sharp pain in her belly, similar to a contraction, Sarah is then stabbed in the face, creating a deep wound across her lips. While upsetting on its own, this cut may remind many mothers of an episiotomy, an incision made to widen the vaginal opening and prevent tearing. It’s a preparatory wound made in advance of birth attempting to control the natural act of pushing a baby through a tiny orifice.
Another memorable wound is made to Sarah’s hand. Attempting to free herself from her bathroom prison, she reaches her arm through a crude hole she’s cut in the bathroom door. Unbeknownst to her, the Woman is waiting on the other side and stabs the scissors through her hand, pinning her to the wall. The scissors penetrate the back of Sarah’s hand, a space commonly used to place IVs during labor and delivery. Often these intravenous needles are used to administer Pitocin, a drug intended to strengthen contractions and induce labor. While use of this drug can be controversial, it is known for confining women to bed during their labor. Similarly, Sarah is now trapped in the bathroom, unable to move and find relief for the excruciating pain.
During the film’s blood-soaked climax, the Woman uses the scissors to cut open Sarah’s belly and remove the baby. Caring not for her safety, she performs a crude cesarean and Sarah bleeds to death on her stairs. Sarah’s old skin is cut up and shed to reveal the mother within. The Woman emerges bathed in blood, but holding the baby while Sarah’s body remains on the stairs, splayed open and essentially forgotten. During routine cesarean procedures, the mother’s organs are removed and placed around or on top of her body to provide access to the baby. Once said baby has emerged, the attention seemingly shifts to the newborn experiencing their first moments in the world while the mother lays trapped on the table, desperately wanting to see the child that was inside her moments ago. It’s easy to feel helpless and forgotten, discarded in favor of the new and exciting arrival.
On the surface, The Woman’s motive is simple: she wants Sarah’s baby. Many girls grow up with the belief that becoming a mother is the pinnacle of femininity. It’s what our bodies are designed to do and at a certain point our maternal instincts will kick in and we’ll be controlled by our womb’s desire to create life. It is an awe inducing gift and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the desire to have children. As long as that desire comes from within. Many of us have also been raised to believe that it’s our duty to provide our partner’s with children and continue the patrilineal line whether we want to or not. Given this rigid set of heteronormative and cisgendered expectations, it’s understandable that many women equate their wombs with their worth.
Sarah and The Woman represent opposite sides of this expectation with Sarah who is gifted with the luck of a pregnancy she may not want and The Woman, saddled with the loss of a desperately desired child. The unfairness of this imbalance is one felt by many women trying to conceive. Though women should absolutely have the right to make decisions about their own health care, it’s difficult not to feel a betrayal when a woman who can have a child chooses not to. Birth and pregnancy are to a certain extent, uncontrollable and subject to the same cruel fate as the rest of life. But given the amount of value we place on women’s ability and desire to birth children, it’s understandable that this pressure would feel particularly harsh. Though monstrous, the Woman’s desire for revenge is understandable and even relatable. She wants to reclaim the baby she believes was stolen from her and restore the power she believes will prove her femininity.
While ostensibly a story about the birth of a baby, Insidealso depicts the birth of a mother. If we are to believe that the Woman is real, thenInside’s conclusion is tragic. Sarah loses both her baby and her life. But if Sarah and the Woman are one and the same, mirror images of each other on opposite sides of a momentous life change, then the ending is cathartic. Sarah has shed the skin of her former life and embraced the mother within her. She emerges from the ordeal burned and scarred but still able to care for her child.
On the board in Sarah’s studio is a black and white image of two figures, both with rounded bellies. Mirror images of each other, their iconic forms weave and overlap in sharp points and lines around an explosive third figure; the marriage of the two forms. It’s an artistic representation of the two female archetypes merging together to create a third being, a mother who is neither virginal nor monstrous. She is human. The Mother is a woman beaten, scarred, and bloody, a manifestation of the physical trauma of birth, but a woman still made awfully beautiful by the sacrifice she has made for a child. She holds a baby in her arms, but she is still capable of holding on to her humanity.
The image of a pure and perfect mother arguably dates back to Mary, who’s immaculate birth story is now celebrated in some variation all over the world. By trying to live up to this image of perfection, we hide the pain of our births from the larger world. We’re told it’s our duty to suffer for our children, but to hide the messy reality of giving birth. We relegate our birth stories to women’s circles allowing society to maintain the fallacy of Mary’s idealized birth and hold us to her impossible standard. Inside makes the visceral pain of this natural process impossible to ignore.
One could argue that Sarah’s baby does not survive the crude cesarean. It lies still and silent in the Woman’s arms as she rocks it under the dim red light. The only cry we hear is when gazing at Sarah’s body, the child whose skin was shed to birth the mother. But I choose to believe a more hopeful interpretation, that the final scene shows a child gazing in loving awe at a mother whose face bears the wounds of its birth. A baby who will love its mother not in spite of the scars she carries, but because of them. She is a woman who sacrificed her own body to create the body of another. A beautiful gift of life born in blood.