Film Review – Pieces of a Woman
Pieces of a Woman
Pieces of a Woman (2020) starts off with a harrowing opening act. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are expecting a child. They have their baby room all set up and ready to go. They have made the decision to have a natural birth at home. Martha goes into labor. The midwife is unavailable and so backup Eva (Molly Parker) is called in. They go through the process of having the child, with Martha experiencing more frequent and painful contractions. Eva tries to calm her – speaking to her in a soothing voice, having her move to more comfortable rooms, etc. The baby arrives, and then something goes wrong.
This opening scene is a highly stressful sequence. Director Kornél Mundruczó (along with cinematographer Benjamin Loeb) shoots it in long durations with few cuts. He follows Martha, Sean, and Eva from the first initial signs of labor all the way through birth. The tension slowly amplifies, with the camera holding steadfast. It is a tough watch to get through, as the frame forces us to confront what is happening and to go through the emotions with the characters. My wife and I are parents to a young child, and the memory of birth is still fresh in our minds. What Martha and Sean go through is something no parent should ever have to face. The event becomes the basis for everything else that follows.
The writing (Ansuman Bhagat, Kata Weber) jumps forward one year later, with each of the characters trying to deal with what happened. In the center is Martha. Vanessa Kirby gives a terrific performance, filling Martha with conflicting thoughts and feelings. She is in sort of an emotional trap. The only thing she can do is try to pick up the pieces and move on, but she is constantly bombarded with reminders of her loss. Friends (albeit from a sincere place) give their condolences, but the effort backfires because it doesn’t allow Martha to push the pain away. Small little things keep piercing at her heart. Mundruczo’s direction does an excellent job of focusing on details – a picture frame hanging on the wall or the way certain fruits smell – that hit Martha like a ton of bricks. Everyone around Martha has now defined her by her loss, there’s nothing else they can talk about when they are with her.
Kirby’s performance is a highlight, but sadly everything else comes up short. The story becomes less interesting when Martha is not on screen. Sean is portrayed as nothing more than a self-destructive brute. LaBeouf plays him through physicality. Sean cannot articulate his feelings and so he must lash out. When Martha distances herself from him, he responds by throwing an exercise ball at her face, yelling obscenities at her, running out, etc. He goes through the typical toxic behavior of alcohol consumption and flirting with infidelity. He tries to force himself upon Martha as a means of feeling something other than dread and emptiness. The biggest issue with Sean is that we see little of his humanity. Sean and Martha are complete opposites – it makes us wonder what it was she saw in him to begin with.
There’s also the issue with the investigation and trial over the events of the botched birth. This section feels melodramatic and unnecessary. Martha’s overbearing mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) pushes her to seek out charges of negligence against Eva, while also chastising Martha for every life decision she has made. Elizabeth resents the fact that Martha is with Sean, thinks that he is below her class, and doesn’t understand when Martha simply wishes to be left alone. The trial itself is artificial, going through the same witness questioning that comes with just about every courtroom drama. This is all comes to a head with an extended monologue that feels hollow. The writing and direction established Martha as an internal character, whose struggle is felt from within instead of from the surface. To have Kirby’s strong performance climax at such a fabricated speech stripped the character of her authenticity.
When someone experiences loss (especially when it comes to a child), that pain never goes away. It may soften, it may not sting as much, but it remains part of that person for the rest of their days. Pieces of a Woman starts off examining that pain with a character who goes about their day like a raw, open wound. But the narrative often drifts away from her story, instead hovering over tangential elements that don’t work nearly as well. When Vanessa Kirby is onscreen, she is the show. When she is not, we understand that the movie is just as neglectful of her as all the characters are. The birthing sequence is the most well executed scene of the film, but it is telling that the narrative high point is also one of trauma and heartbreak.