Pieces of a Woman isn’t an easy watch. Kornél Mundruczó’s film, written by Kata Weber and based on the couple’s own devastating loss of a child, is a gruelling dive into what it means to grapple with grief and one’s own identity when motherhood is snatched away in an instant. And yet, perhaps because of that, it has opened the door to difficult conversations about the things women are expected to repress and keep to themselves in an effort to keep up the appearance of normalcy.
Vanessa Kirby, best-known for playing Princess Margaret in The Crown, is already gaining much-deserved Oscar buzz for her role as Martha, whose life starts to unravel in the aftermath of her daughter’s death just minutes after birth. After months of preparing to be a mother, she now has no child to hold. How can she go back to the woman she used to be? Will her relationship with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf, who casts a dark shadow in light of the allegations of abuse against him) survive this tragedy?
But while much of the attention so far has been dedicated to the gutting 24-minute home birth scene, there’s another, more subtle detail that is key to understanding the final moments of the story. Just a few weeks after an unthinkable loss, Martha goes back to work, only to find that her maternity leave replacement is still at her desk. In an effort to reclaim some semblance of control, she heads to a mall. But there too, her unborn child is echoed in the face of a young girl in a store, and her body, unconscious of her loss, starts to lactate. Finally, Martha stops at a grocery store, and we see her linger over an apple, inhaling its scent.
If this were an isolated moment, it would perhaps just symbolise Martha’s attempt to ground herself in simple pleasures. But the apples return over and over again throughout the movie, always tied to an encounter with a child and a parent. We see Martha eating one on the bus as a father whispers something funny to his little boy, the camera lingering on their joy and her isolation in the face of it. A few seats away, a group of kids are laughing as they make handprints in the cold fog of the windows. Martha takes another bite, and spits out a seed into her hand, toggling it between her fingers. In another scene, Martha sits at the kitchen table, methodically cutting away at an apple core to release the seeds. At one point, Martha buys a book about sprouting, and later, we see those seeds have been wrapped and placed in Martha’s fridge, where she checks on them from time to time.
Apples are an old symbol for fertility. Its seeds represent abundance and plenty, the literal embodiment of “be fruitful and multiply.” In Greco-Roman mythology, it comes up often in association with childbirth or lust. (Goddess Hera, for example, received an apple as a gift in honour of her engagement to Zeus.) In biblical terms, it represents Eve’s original sin, and the temptation that led her to bite into the forbidden fruit, often depicted as an apple. All of these elements fit into the broader narrative of Pieces of a Woman, as Martha grapples with the guilt she feels at the loss of her child, even as she and her family sue the midwife (Molly Parker) who attended her for alleged negligence.
But there’s also a more literal meaning, which we discover at the very end of the movie. Having decided to move forward with a civil case against the midwife, Martha is asked to testify. But once she’s done, she faces a brutal redirect by the defence attorney, who aggressively asks her to describe every single thing she noticed about her baby in the aftermath of the birth. Did she hear her cry? Did she hold her? Was her body warm or cold? Did she notice anything strange? Did she have ten toes? Did she have blonde or dark hair?
In a daze, Martha struggles to recall the child she held for a matter of minutes. She doesn’t remember the colour of her eyes, or the length of her limbs. But one detail, however, stands out. “She smelled like an apple,” Martha whispers.
The very final moments of Pieces of a Woman are about healing. During a trial recess, Martha picks up some pictures Sean had taken during the birth, before everything went wrong. She sees her daughter, and begins to make peace with her loss, even testifying that her midwife was not at fault in her death. In the aftermath of the trial, Martha unwraps the apple seeds she had been keeping in her fridge, and sees they have started to sprout. We see her laughing with her mother and her sister as she begins to reconnect with those around her, and scatters her daughters’ ashes from the bridge Sean helped build. As they fly off into the water, the film gives us a bittersweet ending. A little blonde girl walks through a field of dandelions, and begins to climb an apple tree. As she reaches the top, she picks one and bites into it, relishing the taste. Below, her mother calls out to her: “Lucy!”
It’s Martha, who, roughly ten years after the events of the film, watches her healthy daughter climb down from the apple tree she planted in memory of the one she lost. The two girls will never meet, but through the symbolic fruit, they can remain connected.