We just bid adieu to 2020, a harrowing year that saw us reassess our connections as well as priorities. At a time when most people must be taking stock of their familial connections, comes ‘Pieces of a Woman,’ which is about loss, trauma, and figuring out what are the relationships that are worth repairing, and the ones that aren’t.
What is the story about?
When we first meet Sean and Martha, each of them is at their workplace. Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is a scruffy construction worker who is one of many building a bridge in Boston. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) works in a swanky high-riser downtown and her employers throw a “going away” party even as her anxiety regarding labour goes up. Both have chosen a home birth and eagerly await the arrival of their daughter. When their midwife fails to show up due to another commitment, her stand-in Eva (Molly Parker) arrives. Eva follows protocol during the birth while maintaining a tenderness for Martha’s intense agony. Eventually, she tells Sean to dial 9-1-1, and suggests hospitalization. Martha births the baby at home only for a few seconds of bliss, and thus begins an exploration of a mother’s trauma and how it affects those around her.
The reason why it is important to paint a picture of the extremely triggering first quarter of ‘Pieces of a Woman,’ is because it is the kind of opening to a film that eases you into a false sense of tone. Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo shoots the birthing sequence in one take, and it is pure chaos. Martha is constantly groaning and belching and Sean is in a routine flux, trying to support her and remembering his pregnancy training. The tension of the impending trauma is palpable throughout the sequence, and yet it pierces our hearts. The birthing-from-hell is a strong foundation to build upon to portray the grief of both parents and extended family. It is an unimaginable occurrence and we expect each character to deal with it in their own complex and perhaps-inexplicable way. But what does happen in the rest of the film is sweeping frames of nothingness. Conversations at the dinner table amount to nothing, and the final chapter that takes place in a courtroom, waters down Martha’s loss to psychological melodrama.
As Martha goes numb and hides her grief under a steely repressed exterior, Sean becomes needy, emotional, violent, and philanders. The parts are ably handled and performed by LaBoeuf, and especially by Kirby, but the writing and direction lack focus to deal with them as characters beyond their loss. Who are Sean and Martha as partners and who are they as individuals? For all the time they spend apart, sleeping, drinking or just whiling away their pain, it feels like a hollow attempt at showing loss because characters don’t deal with their grief enough for us to feel it.
There is a stark contrast in tone because of this. As mentioned before, the birthing sequence is severely jittery and chaotic, while the middle portion is like a slow burn. However, the climactic sequence in the courtroom follows neither. As a follow-up to the bursting anxiety of the beginning, it is unnecessarily jarring, cheesy, and melodramatic.
Vanessa Kirby won the Best Actress award for the film at the Venice Film Festival, and rightfully so. It is something to see her power through the childbirth sequence with tension, pain, resilience, and hope. Then, she goes into the second act where the memories of her repressed trauma surround her at every corner, and she has to deal with them alone. While her grief doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective, it is still a performance that carries through a very problematic film. LaBoeuf also has one moment of ingenuity, where his ‘boorish’ nature and lower-class upbringing start wedging through his relationship with Martha and her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. This issue is explored fleetingly which is a disservice to his performance. Burstyn has to power through several moments of emotional duress, but none of them seem to come together with the rest of the story.
Music & Other Departments
The score on the film is minimal. The cinematography and palette are stunning.
Reportedly, Mundruczo borrows heavily from his life with writing and real-life partner Kata Weber, especially for the scenes of outbursts between the family. There is, hence, a gamut of raw and genuine emotion to be felt at the film’s base. The childbirth sequence, for instance, is stunning in the way it is written, directed, and performed. The rest of the film looks visually stunning. Kirby is immensely praise-worthy.
There is a lack of subtlety in the moments that need it the most and the lack of drama when you really need it to shine through. The narrative and style of ‘Pieces of a Woman’ are so disjointed that it feels like several shorts that have been stitched together. The entire experience feels pointless.
Did I enjoy it?
I loved Kirby’s performance and thought that she deserved better material.
Do I recommend it?
Not really. The subject matter needs more depth and that was severely lacking.