Pieces of a Woman

Hidden Gems

Despite recent wide release, Pieces of a Woman 's gemlike brilliance has remained somewhat hidden.

Isabel de Andreis


‘Pieces of a Woman’ is a wonderful film. A true hidden gem. The film itself is of course not hidden at all. It’s on Netflix, and Vanessa Kirby has received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Martha, a young mother living through the neonatal death of her daughter and its traumatic aftermath. But while ‘Pieces of a Woman’ is itself visible, its gemlike brilliance has remained somewhat hidden.

Several of my go-to film critics thought ‘Pieces of a Woman’ merely showed a traumatised woman’s journey through a series of inauthentic or random sub-plots - a mediocre drama carried solely by a strong lead performance. Such a view of the film coincides with its muted reception at this year’s Oscars. Kirby’s best actress nomination has been the film’s only accolade, while writer Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó have been ignored by the Academy (and throughout the whole award season). Given this reception, I put off watching ‘Pieces of a Woman’ for about two weeks. One Friday evening I was feeling resilient, and so braced myself for what I expected would be a grueling two hour and eight minute acting masterclass. To my surprise, I was treated to an altogether different film.

Kirby’s performance is beautiful in a quiet way. It has an understated, effortless quality that is shared by the whole ensemble. The film’s characters are authentic and multi-faceted, with the exception of two minor roles: a friend of Martha’s mother and Martha’s sister’s boyfriend. These two are crass caricatures who personify what is perhaps the film’s main topic: (inadvertent) invasiveness and interference. Another way of putting it could be this: how not to interact with a bereaved person if you have their best interest at heart.

Quietness is Martha’s defining characteristic. After the death of her daughter, she withdraws into herself but appears to find a place to heal there. That is, when the people in her life aren’t sabotaging her bereavement process. Colleagues treat her awkwardly, she receives bland, uninvited advice on parental grief, and her boyfriend Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) behave in egocentric and at times transgressive ways.

Sean comes across as a vulnerable man whose insecurity is amplified by his lower socio-economic status, something which Elizabeth exploits and uses against him. At his most extreme he becomes violent towards Martha, throwing an object at her and calling her a “bitch” and a “liar”. Elizabeth is more of an enigma, although it’s suggested that she suffers from early dementia. Her dismissive attitude towards Martha’s life-choices (boyfriend, home birth) culminates in attempted gaslighting, as she casually introduces the notion that Martha could be held responsible for the death of her daughter. Instead of accusing Martha outright, Elizabeth suggests that hypothetical “people” might adopt this notion, and then claims that she herself wishes to protect her daughter against them.

Sean and Elizabeth are noticeably uninterested in Martha’s feelings, and in *her *experience of the traumatic event. In a distressing sex-scene, Sean seems to decide that he wants to return to normality and completely ignores Martha’s apathetic objections. Elizabeth seems unaware of Martha’s individual bereavement rituals and needs. Instead, she tries to convince Martha to sue the midwife and agree to funeral arrangements that are to her own liking. The anonymous character of a bookshop owner represents everything that Martha doesn’t get from her mother and boyfriend. As Martha peruses a book about sprouting, he takes note of her interest and recommends a superior book on the subject. He has observed Martha and offers advice and support based on what he sees in her. If only she had such people in her personal life.

But as things stand, healing only seems possible when her boyfriend and mother are not there. The scenes of Martha by herself in the bookshop and in her flat are serenely lit, tidy snippets which stand in stark contrast to her unwholesome interpersonal experiences throughout the film. The viewer longs for more such peaceful moments with Martha. But the film is not just about Martha’s person or her bereavement. It’s also more than a study of the (negative) effects of other people’s behaviour on a grieving mother. In another layer, this is a film about relationships.

The events that drive the plot—the birth and death of Martha’s daughter, and the aftermath of the trauma—are in a sense the vehicle through which we see these relationships unfold. In current cinema, there have been stand-out examples of psychological depth and realism. Delroy Lindo’s performance in Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ immediately comes to mind. Ryan Gosling’s take on Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ is another example. Characters in film, much like real people, project only a select aspect of their emotional life, but performances like Lindo’s and Gosling’s make us feel like we get to glimpse behind the mask. 'Pieces of a Woman' has a similar quality to it, but here we get that special intimate look not at individual people, but rather at the relationships between them. A mother and her daughter, two bereaved parents.

A third kind of relationship completes the picture: that between Martha and the midwife Eva. The two women meet twice. At the birth of Martha’s daughter, Eva steps in as a last-minute substitute. At Eva’s trial following the death of the child, Martha appears to give testimony. There’s a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere between the medical professional and patient, which the film nails with an uncanny precision. Somehow the two people don’t ‘click’, but they do their utmost to make the best of the situation. The traumatic turn of events sees the disharmonious pair face the ultimate test of their emotional strength. In this, both demonstrate equal integrity. Eva does her utmost to support Martha and even addresses the tension between both women constructively to reassure her patient. Martha, unlike her mother, is not tempted into scapegoating Eva for her tragic loss. In the film’s finale, she professes to the court that she considers Eva innocent. Martha’s display of independent agency and integrity reveal yet another layer of the film. The story is a modern-day realist version of the hero’s journey. Rather than a mystical knight, Martha is a true to life person; her trials and tribulations are not fights with dragons, but severe emotional trauma and loss paired with the challenge of difficult interpersonal relationships. Throughout her journey, we see Martha develop the intellectual strength to see through her mother’s manipulative personality, and the emotional strength to stand up for her own needs and values. In the end these, her achievements, enable Martha to lovingly take charge of her relationship with her mother, and, as the film’s final moment suggests, to become a mother for the second time.


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