Pieces Of A Woman Explained — Martha’s Apples Taste Bittersweet

Pieces of a Woman opens with a long graphic take chronicling a difficult home birth. The 24-minute sequence has viewers hold their breath while the camera unceremoniously follows protagonist Martha as she enters labor, burps, vomits, swears, and sweats. Rarely has a childbirth depiction in film felt this hyperrealistic; never has it felt this heartbreaking

Martha has the eyes of Vanessa Kirby, best known for her role on Netflix royal drama The Crown. The character’s light dims as she learns, minutes after splitting open to welcome her newborn, that she’ll never get to see her daughter live. 

This story brings an uncomfortable conversation to the table. The silence around child loss and miscarriages speaks volumes on the hierarchy of grief, sidelining those who have lost a baby as if they don’t have a right to mourn.

Pieces of a Woman is a personal tale of love and loss

Premiered at Venice Film Festival last year, the film by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and his partner Kata Wéber was backed by Sam Levison and Martin Scorsese, serving as executive producers.

Wéber channeled her silent devastation over a miscarriage into a play, later adapted for the screen. The filmmaking duo taps into their pain to craft a tale of hurting and healing, as the finale suggests. 

The film captures Martha’s progressive isolation from her family and partner Sean, a rough construction worker and former addict played by Shia LaBoeuf back when Olivia Wilde’s “no assholes on set” policy wasn’t the norm.

Pieces of a Woman also stars Molly Parker as Eva, a quiet, soft-spoken midwife assisting Martha during childbirth. In need of someone to blame for the death of baby Yvette, Martha’s no-nonsense mother and Holocaust survivor Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) pushes her daughter to snap out of her catatonic state. Elizabeth wants Martha to press charges against Eva, which she refuses to do.

Apples as a symbol of rebirth

Following one violent outburst at Thanksgiving, Martha realizes her loved ones are trying to claim pieces of her body, of her experience, as their own. As her relationships with her family and partner become progressively more strained, she finds solace in her solitude.

Cultivating her grief takes on a very practical meaning when Martha tries to make apple seeds sprout in her fridge. Apples are a leitmotif throughout the film. Martha eats apples and fiddles with their seeds as she observes parents and their children in silence. She buys apples and avoids the prying questions of one of her mother’s friends at the grocery store. She goes to a bookstore looking for apple growing tips.

In the seemingly hostile environment provided by her cold Boston apartment, Martha defies everyone’s expectations, including her own. Months after that fateful night, she is ready to carry her pain with her and move forward. But not before attending Eva’s trial.

The trial against the midwife

The legal proceeding against Eva is inspired by the real-life trial against Hungarian home birth advocate and midwife Ágnes Geréb, arrested in 2010 after being accused of negligent malpractice. Yet Eva’s sentence is different than that faced by Geréb. During her testimony, Martha makes it very clear that she doesn’t blame the midwife and even reconciles with her mother. 

Despite Martha’s moving plea, the courtroom drama element feels rushed and is among the weakest elements of Pieces of a Woman. The movie relegates the trial to the finale and reduces Eva — a woman who’s also grappling with guilt and grief — to a mostly silent character.

The movie is built entirely on Kirby’s Martha and owes it all to her. Hers is an intense performance that at times feels like a monologue, even and perhaps especially when interacting with others. 

Unable to communicate her needs to an absent, cheating partner and a stern mother with a different set of views, Martha struggles to find the language to express her grief.

Apples become an on-the-nose proxy for Martha’s very private, muted ability to process her trauma. From denial through acceptance and hope, the protagonist walks alone. By tending to her apple seeds, she grows a voice to articulate her pain eloquently at Eva’s trial. At home, her apple seeds have sprouted, displaying an impressively convenient timing.

The final scene of Pieces of a Woman

The final scene takes place at an unspecified time in the future. A blonde little girl is seen climbing a strong, fruitful apple tree. The tree bearing ripe fruits is an obvious metaphor for fertility, equating the female body to a vessel apt to carry a pregnancy to term. However, it can also stand for Martha’s growth and the healing she had to do in order to stand on her own feet again.

As the viewers are left to work out the symbolism, Martha reappears on screen in full motherly mode. She’s come to retrieve the girl, calling her by endearing nicknames to signal she’s her daughter. 

Pieces of a Woman opts for a circular structure. Martha’s circumstances have changed as she’s no longer with Sean and might have moved town. Yet her desire for motherhood has stayed intact and possibly grown stronger, just like the apple tree. The movie might have benefited from Martha addressing the idea of having another child after the tragedy of her baby’s death, one of the taboo implications still unexplored when discussing miscarriages and baby loss. It goes for a hazy, dreamlike sequence instead, which makes the audience question the realness of the scene.

The young girl’s name — Luciana —  is a bittersweet tribute to one of the women Kirby spoke to when researching for the role of Martha. The actress met with some who have experienced child loss to grasp the peculiar traits of their grief, which she captured brilliantly.

“One woman in particular whom I spent a lot of time with, Kelly, lost her baby, Luciana, in a very similar way to Martha,” Kirby said in an interview. “She talked about how it’s the loneliest feeling in the world. The whole film, I think we all felt that.”

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