Pieces of a Woman: The gaps between help and support
The pieces of a woman couldn't have been picked, gathered and glued by someone from without; they could only have been protected by those around.
- Total Shares
In the middle of a discussion/argument while trying to encourage Martha to deal with her grief by facing it, her mother, Elizabeth says, “Martha, if you had done it my way, you’d be holding your baby in your arms right now.” This particular scene formulates the central conflict of Pieces of a Woman — a film otherwise being viewed for its portrayal of grief and the way it breaks individuals and relationships down, and being critiqued for its failure to bring the ‘grief’ and ‘trauma’ into perspective.
Richard Brody writes in his review in The New Yorker, “...its effortful grandiosity transforms it into something hollow and even, at times, risible.” Adrian Horton observes in The Guardian, “…defining a woman by the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, spotlighting the traumatic event in eye-popping, absorptive detail while leaving all pieces outside it murky, out of view.”
Along with being highly stylised in technical terms, the film is also structured upon certain clichés about class hierarchies, race history, gendered relations, and how they make an impact upon personal relationships. The scene mentioned above is central to the mother-daughter relationship, the film, and perhaps the most significant issue arising out of it; something that has often been taken as granted in portrayals of trauma, grief, and their aftereffects. It, intentionally and unintentionally, reveals the primary bone of contention in any survivor-caregiver relationship — agency. The conversation (the only real one between the two and quite long) depicts Elizabeth and Martha as not just different people but also different worldviews. Not only are they different in terms of being outward and inward-looking, they are also essentially different in terms of agentive action.
Elizabeth, a Holocaust survivor, believes in concepts of revengeful/wrathful legal justice that makes an assumed perpetrator of crime pay for her ‘incompetence’, while Martha is shown to understand justice as a broad philosophical concept that cannot be ‘administered’ but shared. Martha’s speech, at the near-end of the film, despite being sentimental in parts, makes a pertinent point about some losses one cannot be ‘compensated’ for. At that moment, making the choice to ‘forgive’ her midwife, Martha emerges out of the shadows of not just the grief that had overwhelmed her, but also the shadows of her mother, her husband, and all those who had tried to ‘help’ her in their own ways. Her erstwhile independence and understanding of herself as an individual, as her grief being her own, is finally complete in the utterance of forgiveness.
Vanessa Kirby as Martha (L) and Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth (R) in Pieces of a Woman. (Photo: Screenshot)
Not only do these scenes evoke some complex Christian ideas and ethics, but they would also possibly lead some members of the audience to think about concepts of charity, help and support. Elizabeth’s shocking, heartbreaking statement, quoted at the beginning, points us towards the probable reason behind the breakdown of many individuals and relationships; help that is available on the terms and conditions of the one choosing to help and not on the basis of the needs of the one to be helped. Elizabeth’s insistence upon ‘standing up for oneself’, her raging call to Martha to fight for herself, are calls to follow her method, probably calls to finally become her daughter rather than anything else. In attempting to help Martha, Elizabeth seems to be helping herself, and possibly gloating at the validity of her worldview. In refusing to accept the ‘help’ being offered, Martha is trying to become her own person, loudly and clearly.
While the film rushes into finishing quite a few plotlines, its core lies in the prolonged scenes where Martha is given the time (and sometimes dialogues) to talk about her trauma and grief as not just irreparable but also as elements only she can (and should be allowed to) use to rebuild herself or her life. Her refusal to follow Elizabeth’s methods (burying the child’s body, organising a funeral, going to the trial) is not a wilful child’s rebellion against her mother, but rather an insight into the difference between getting help and having a support system. The breakdown of relationships in the face of tragedy results from the hardening of individual perspectives and positions and the refusal to allow individuals to deal with their grief despite participating in the creation of a support group. The pieces of a woman couldn’t have been picked, gathered and glued by someone from without; they could only have been protected by those around.