The beginning of Pieces of a Woman is difficult to watch, as we know what is going to happen. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), two excited parents-to-be, get a new mini-van, have a baby shower, frame photos from the baby’s ultrasound, and excitedly prepare for the birth of their daughter.
As Martha goes into labor, you might not initially sense that something is wrong. It’s tense, but it seems like things will be okay. Sean comforts and kisses Martha as she groans, belches, and screams in pain. It’s totally different from the type of labor we normally see on screen: usually, we see mothers (still looking put-together) scream a few times, breathe loudly, and bam, a baby’s born! We rarely ever see the messy bits represented, but Pieces of a Woman does not shy away. It’s a 23 minute scene without a single cut, masterfully done by director Kornél Mundruczó in his first English language feature.
Martha and Sean have chosen to have a home birth, in their luxe-looking apartment in Boston. Martha’s upset that the midwife whom they’d planned to work with is unable to attend, but her stand-in, Eva (Molly Parker), arrives quickly to help. It’s deeply uncomfortable and unsettling to watch these intimate moments of labor, because we know where the film is taking us. Knowing what is going to happen does not make it any less difficult to watch, or any less suspenseful. There’s no reward here, and Mundruczó forces us to confront the inevitable.
Watching Eva’s face as she goes from concerned, to smiling, to horrified has the viewer feeling those same emotions right alongside her. This is all within the first 30 minutes of the film, and it doesn’t get much easier to watch from there. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the film is not as captivating, and it’s unable to catch up to the suspense of the beginning of the film.
Pieces of a Woman takes us through the months after Martha and Sean’s loss. Their relationship is fractured, possibly irreparably. In a scene where Sean tries to initiate sex with Martha, the two fumble around clumsily; Sean desperately and Martha reluctantly. It’s a tough scene to watch, and it feels gratuitous. While gratuitous, this scene fits — there are a number of scenes following (like a conversation about The White Stripes) that just don’t add much to the story.
Shia LaBeouf’s performance is as expected – he seems to be bursting at the seams with rage, grief, and frustration (see Honey Boy). While Jimmie Fails (The Last Black Man in San Fransisco) makes an appearance, he’s severely under-utilized (like many of the supporting acts in this film).
One of the difficult things about Pieces of a Woman is that, unlike other films where we may be rooting for the couple, it’s hard to want much of anything for this couple we barely know anything about. We know Sean works in construction and that he’s been sober for 6 years. We know Martha works in a fancy office. We know Sean and Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), have a rocky relationship, largely due to their difference in class.
We also know that Martha’s family is wealthy enough to bring multiple court cases against the midwife. These details are enough to propel the film along, but not enough for us to really care about what happens to these characters. The story is terribly sad, yes, but the film’s writing lacks the same intimacy as the camerawork. It’s reflective of the sort of detached listlessness Martha moves through the rest of the story with.
Although the writing may get a bit lost, Vanessa Kirby makes her way through Pieces of a Woman commandingly. Her grief is palpable. While there is a story here in Pieces of a Woman about the expectations put on women, on mothers, on familial roles, it doesn’t quite get a chance to come out in this 127 minute film. The film loses focus as we plod alongside Martha; it’s fitting of the subject matter, but it doesn’t make for a great viewing experience. After the tense first 30 minutes of the film, the story seems to fall apart a bit, just like Martha does.
What Pieces of a Woman does well is remind us that there is no correct way to grieve; it tackles heavy subject matter that to most is unimaginable until you’ve been through it in a way that elicits deep empathy and understanding. There’s little joy or retribution to be found in this film, but hopefully there is catharsis for those who need it.
Pieces of a Woman premieres on Netflix Thursday, January 7
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