Vanessa Kirby's intensely expression of personal guilt characterises this filmTWITTER/KAREREVIEWS

A film detailing a tragic home birth and its aftermath may be expected to overflow with unsuppressed emotion. Pieces Of A Woman, Kornél Mundruczó’s new film for Netflix, does something very different, examining Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a grieving mother whose coping mechanisms are infinitely more internal, and all that surrounds her in the wake of possibly the most immense personal tragedy.

“We witness in all its guttural, painful reality something all too often romanticised in cinema.”

The birth, one of the opening scenes, is a far cry from a screaming woman in a starkly white hospital. Instead, it is a twenty-four-minute one-shot scene that has the spectatorial quality of theatre, with quiet, broken dialogue while the camera undulates incessantly. It hovers, never still, never perfectly framing the subject, a hazy roving from room to room and character to character. At times, the actors move in the way of the camera, engendering a sense that we, the observer, are intruders in this life-changing moment for all involved. There is an undeniable sense, as a result, that this is really happening, that we are witnessing in all its guttural, painful reality something that is all too often romanticised in cinema.

Vanessa Kirby's performance maps the consequences of grief for a young womanTWITTER/GBRANDMAN

After the baby — a girl named Yvette — is born, the camera pans away from the family of three for the few seconds in which they exist together, giving them a fleeting moment of privacy and unity. We see them as the midwife does, in the mirror, which also means we see the panic descend on her face as she sees Yvette turning blue, before the elated parents have any idea that their daughter is about to slip away. The scene only cuts to black when the camera is out in the street, finally still on ambulance lights that seem cruelly garish in the face of what has clearly happened. We do not see the moment when Martha is told her daughter is dead. We do not see her break down or scream or cry, setting the tone for what the film proceeds to demonstrate: an internalisation of trauma.

In a later scene, Martha and her husband Sean brave a family lunch, where she wanders in and out of other guests’ painfully banal conversation, the camera following her instead of the speaking actors. She only joins the conversation at the mention of children, demonstrating the focus of her fractured mind. The subsequent argument between Martha and her mother is when we get intimate close-ups of faces that finally let out the visceral anger and suppressed sadness. While they argue, they are never in the same shot, exemplifying the distance that has grown between them.

“The film conveys the impossibility of communication.”

The film also employs multiple symbols that articulate what remains unsaid because of the intractable pain it signals. The plants that flourished in the apartment during the birth remain dead, crisp in the sunlight, while glasses and saucepans lie unwashed in the sink – representations of insignificance in comparison to the care that could have been lavished on a new baby. In a moment of anger, Sean throws the birthing ball at Martha, literally forcing her failure into her face. As Martha pushes her cigarette into it, the ball deflates, communicating her sense of insurmountable helplessness. In employing symbolic moments or motifs such as these, the film conveys the impossibility of communication — there are no words or dialogue that can come close to explaining this sadness.

Throughout the film, the building of a bridge indicates the passage of time. The world around Martha continues to grow and develop, while her trauma continues to be insoluble. But as the two sides of the bridge edge closer, a sense unfolds that we are building towards a revelation, an epiphany. In one of the film’s final scenes, Martha stands on the completed bridge and scatters Yvette’s ashes. They are carried on the wind, disappearing into a grey sky. The bridge, which has been disjointed before, is now unbroken, reflecting the peace and resolution brought about by this act of saying goodbye.

The motif of the apple appears throughout the filmTWITTER/Epiloguers

This is by no means to say that, in letting Yvette go in a literal sense, Martha forgets her. It is the concluding scene of the film that remains the most moving, a testament to the eternity of grief and its eventual transfiguration to delicate memory. For the majority of the film, one motif has gone unexplained — Martha’s obsession with apples. We see her smelling them, eating them, even stratifying their pips and watching their slow progression into germination. But on the stand at the midwife’s trial, she remembers that her daughter smelt like apples, and suddenly that symbol is realised.


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And so, as Martha’s daughter years later climbs a flourishing apple tree, the camera pans out through the leaves and branches as the mother-daughter interaction quietly plays out, half-heard and half-seen, Yvette survives. We leave the scene, and the film ends, in gentle breeze and birdsong. Mother and daughter are together at last. Pieces of a Woman is not an easy watch, nor one bubbling with action and pace, but its quietness and subtlety crucially typify, and fully accept, the diversity of grief’s manifestations.