Yage Wang—Staff Writer
“Resonance, every solid object has its own vibration, when the outer one matches the inner one, you get the resonance. Sometimes, the resonance can be so powerful to bring the whole bridge down.”
Kornél Mundruczó, the Hungarian director of Pieces of a Woman, rolls out the core message of the film by adopting the story of the Tacoma bridge. The Tacoma was opened for use in 1940 and dramatically fell down the same year in November. It is an artistic metaphor that Mundruczó uses to relate the character’s mental collapse to the historical event. Sometimes, there is no reason to explain the causes of the collapse but “resonance,” which is how Pieces of a Woman tells a simple story of how we cope with the loss of a child.
Pieces of a Woman is an R-rated movie streamed in theaters last fall but, due to the pandemic’s impact, it did not catch much attention until it was released on Netflix, January 7. Martha, played by Vanessa Kirby, our heroine for this film, loses her daughter in a home birth. While the film focuses on Martha’s maternal grief, it also exposes the tension between Martha, her mother, Elizabeth, and her partner, Sean.
This is a spoiler alert if you have not watched the movie yet. The film opens on a hopeful note with Martha’s baby shower party and Sean finishing his day as a bridge construction worker. Then, without any warning, the movie pivots to a nearly 20-minute documentary-like scene of Martha giving birth to her daughter. It is hard labor that the audience might feel uncomfortable watching, leaving them feeling her pain.
Sean, Martha’s boyfriend, is a complicated character. While watching the movie, people might constantly change their attitudes toward this guy. He is funny, caring, with a few prideful traits. After Martha and Sean lose their baby girl, Sean’s temperament changes and he reacts violently in his grief. He picks up his old habits of drinking and using drugs.
Though the film focuses on Martha’s brokenness and exposes many faults of the would-be father, I really do not consider this film as a feminist advocation. Martha and Sean both lost a child. There is no reason to debate on who feels more pain, so the film instead confronts coping with loss. Mundruczó zooms in on the relationship between Martha and Sean, showing the conflicts in their relationship. It is not a movie about gender equality. It is about communication, mutual respect, and not shifting our anger on other people when we are dealing with devastating losses.
In the movie, another maternal character, Elizabeth, also stands out in the story. At first, we might consider her as a controlling mother who is never satisfied. After Martha loses her baby, Elizabeth urges her to get compensation from their midwife—money, apology, or lawsuit. Of course, Martha responds furiously to her mother’s request. She thinks that her mom only feels disgrace from her depression and home birth, which much likely collides with what the audiences are thinking as well. As it turns out, Elizabeth is just like Martha. She is just a mother who desires the best for her daughter. In a highlighted lunch scene in Elizabeth’s home, we can tell how much love she puts into her mother-daughter relationship.
As we contemplate Elizabeth as a maternal figure, we also learn that she is a survivor of the holocaust. She, instead of losing a child, almost lost her life in WWII. In the movie, Elizabeth delivers a monologue about her experience as a mother to Martha, “After my father went into the ghetto, my mother found a shack, an empty shack, that she went into and gave birth to me, without any help at all. She stashed me under the floorboards when she has to go out and steal food, so she could make milk enough to keep me alive, but just alive. Not enough to cry, or we’d be caught.”
This explains her tough personality, revealing the character as a woman dealing with her own demons rather than just a grumpy old lady. It is very interesting that the scriptwriter, Kata Wéber, subtly touches on the holocaust memories. It is an honorable move to call people, especially people in the United States, to remember the holocaust’s deep wound on humanity.
Other than the delicate character designs, Mundruczó also employs some gimmicks to make the film more artistic. When Martha just loses her kid, she wears a bright red coat to work. On the opposite of mourning for her loss with pitch black, she decides to cover it up with a more vibrant shade, which contrasts with her sorrow. Also, there are eight time slots across Martha’s mental healing process. Each of the timepieces starts with a view of the bridge that Sean is building, from fall to next year’s spring. It forms an interesting relation to Martha’s reconstruction of her personal life. At the end of the story, when she confronts the midwife in the court, it is also a sign of Maratha regathering the last piece of herself and starts moving forward. When you recognize the pain, when you admit the pain, it is the sign that things will get better. As another message from Mundruczó and Wéber, to all the people overcoming brokenness, Pieces of a Woman rings true.