What Scared You, Mum? The Open Wounds of Petite Maman

What Scared You, Mum? The Open Wounds of Petite Maman

What if we could meet our mothers before they became mothers? How did they become the people who raised us, and how did we change them? Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman asks quiet, tender questions of enormous scope – and prompted one writer to have all the conversations with her mum that she couldn’t have when she wanted to. Rafaela Sales Ross writes a letter on mothers, daughters, and generational wounds.

Hi mum,

It’s been almost a decade since we last spoke. How odd. Has time flown by for you, too? At times, it feels like the world has engulfed me and regurgitated this brand new person, living inside my skin, thinking my thoughts. A person who has never met you. 

I can’t bring myself to say I thought about you often. That would be a lie. But, over the past few months, something has changed. Earlier in the year I sat on my old sofa, exhaustion sending waves through my body, and watched a little film called Petite Maman. I could not stop thinking about writing to you since. So here I am. 

I am certain you don’t know Céline Sciamma – although, if anyone ever asked, you would promptly say you did. The first time I stumbled upon her work was at the end of a busy day at the Rio Film Festival –  I ran under the rain to make it to a late screening, and called you to say I would be late. Feet soaked yet undefeated. I was fresh out of adolescence and mesmerised by the way Sciamma captured the woes of those troubled years. Girlhood was the name of the film I saw on that day.

In Petite Maman, Sciamma focuses on childhood instead, exploring an idea that has long haunted my thoughts: what would it be like if we could meet our parents as children, before they ever even dreamed of the children they would one day have? Here, Nelly travels down with her parents to her mother’s childhood home, to clean up the place after the passing of her grandmother. Overwhelmed by grief, Marion, Nelly’s mother, leaves the house early, the girl and her father left to pack up old trinkets while Marion unpacks feelings of her own.

I keep coming back to this memory of me as a young girl pretending to be asleep next to you in bed. It was an early Sunday morning, and I could hear you chatting to an old friend on the phone. I dared not move, hooked onto every single word you were saying. They sounded so different. You weren’t mum, then. You were a friend. I had little context, but I heard you talk about your mother. In the present tense. That wouldn't have been a big thing, had you not told me she was dead. It dawned on me then that she was only sort of dead. Dead to you, at least. 

For another few years, I struggled with this idea of intangible death. How does one crave such utter obliteration? I imagine the finality of this pain as lava, piping hot as it erupts and then somewhat malleable as it cools down, reaching its final form as rock – impenetrable, unmovable. 

I am now older than you were when you had me, and often catch myself questioning the anthropophagic nature of motherhood. A creature eating a woman from the inside, feeding on her core until there is nothing left, absorbing it all to then transform anew. What happens to a woman after becoming the mother of another woman in the making? Youth, the social commodity of womanhood, is indelibly tarnished from the moment life begins to be shaped in the womb and the horror of obsolescence harbours the most corrupt of resentments. As daughters grow, turning into mirrors of what their mothers once were, the cyclical nature of life turns the instinct to protect into the instinct to preserve. 

Maybe this is what happened to you. As my awkwardly-shaped corners turned sharp, hormones urgently taking hold of my every nook and cranny, you experienced the primal realisation that I was now in the game. This twisted, ever-present game. I am not here to point any fingers though, please do not worry. I’m just trying to understand you. You, yet another cog in the wheel and yet never reduced by it. You, who gave so much and yet were so cruel in taking it back. You and words drenched in venom, cutting my ears as sharp knives, permeating the heavy air between us, floating aimlessly in a safe-space-turned-captivity. Words turned shackles turned bloody turned nothing. 

In Petite Maman, after the sudden departure of her mother, Nelly goes out to play in the fields where Marion used to play as a child. It is there, buried within the woods, that she finds another little girl putting together a makeshift shack. The girl is young Marion at Nelly’s age. They look at each other without ever stating the obvious – they are copies of one another, played by twin sisters. With this, Sciamma aptly eschews the formulaic in lieu of upending the ease of the encounter, one as organic as the rotten autumnal leaves that take new shape under wet wellies and the moist soil that yields life in orchestrated perpetuity. 

Together, Nelly and Marion settle into quick friendship, grabbing each other by the hand as they introduce one another to the intricacies of their worlds, spilling warm milk over the kitchen table to the delicious sound of giggles. They play dress up and stare at the ceiling in wonder, basking in the companionship, far too used to the loneliness that comes with being an only child. As joy turns into trust, Nelly tells Marion the truth. As a response, young Marion asks “Did I want you?” and, to Nelly’s confirmation she replies, “I’m not surprised, I’m already thinking about you.” 

Did you think about me? Before or after, even? I wish I had asked you. I wish I had asked more. When Nelly prods her father for more information about his childhood, she says she wants to know about the “real stuff”, which she defines as “things that scared you”. What scared you, mum? Was it me? What scared you before you ever dreamt of me – that is, if you ever did? I wonder what your favourite game was. The first nail polish you ever used. The first song you ever learned all the lyrics to. I imagine you frowning at the taste of new food, and figuring out how to not contort your face when lying. I imagine you were kind one day, kinder than you ever were to me. 

As the two girls prepare to bid farewell, Nelly is suddenly weighed down by the drowning anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Her young mother is far easier to understand than the mystical creature who left the house a few days earlier. “You’re often unhappy,” Nelly softly tells Marion, questioning if it’s her fault. Marion, without pause, replies, “You didn’t invent my sadness”. You didn’t invent my sadness. You didn’t invent my sadness. Five words, threaded on a needle, stitched through my skin, an embroidery pattern of guilt and redemption. 

You never allowed me such redemption. I imagine your mother never allowed you such a thing either. What happened between you two? Was she the one to shape you into what you are or am I just looking for answers in the comfort of patterns? More questions to be added to the bottomless vault where I keep them all stashed away. This vault, which I thought was ironclad, feels like an old tupperware now. One of those turned orange by countless refills of tomato soup. The lid is gone, too. Sciamma blew it away. 

At one point during the handful of days Nelly and Marion spend together, Nelly pleads for a sleepover, telling her dad, “There won’t be another time”. Time, what a funny concept. We had so much of it, and yet none at all. I see myself picking your brain for days on end, unravelling the whole of you, the two of us putting each other back together again. No questions unanswered, all the real stuff out in the air. But all that is left is this letter, a French film, and a broken vault.

Rafaela Sales Ross (@rafiews) is a proud Brazilian currently living in Scotland. She has a Masters in Film and Visual Culture and is a researcher of the portrait of suicide on film. Rafa, as she likes to be called, loves Harold and Maude and writing about the exploration of death, existence and legacy on film.

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