Pieces of a Woman (2020)
The aptly named Pieces of a Woman (2020) is a psychological drama that can leave you feeling like an emotional punching bag. You don’t know where the next hit is coming from but you expect it to hurt.
The brief opening scenes are introductory character portraits. Rugged plain-speaking Sean (Shia LaBeouf) works on a construction site and is an anxiously expectant first-time father. His very pregnant wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) finishes her last day of work and wealthy mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) buys her a new car as a baby-shower gift. At home soon after, Martha unexpectedly goes into labour and a substitute midwife Eva (Molly Parker) arrives to take charge.
What follows is a 25-minute, roller coaster, single take of a home birth. Every minute is another step into the unknowable and the questions inside our heads are unstoppable. Who is the substitute? Why does she suddenly look worried? What should they do next? The baby emerges with deafening silence while time stops still. We hear the baby cry and there’s a moment of relief. We can breathe again while the midwife looks like she survived a near-death experience. Then the crying stops. The baby turns blue. We are swallowed up by an excruciating and seemingly endless silence.
This film is a fine-grain exposition of grief. Previous fault-lines in relationships become canyons: Elizabeth never liked Martha’s choice of husband and seizes the opportunity to blame them for choosing home birth. The meddling mother insists the pair sue the midwife for negligence because someone must be made to pay. Sean has been an outcast in a wealthy family so he hits back, both at himself and others. But it is Martha whose sense of self is pulled in all directions under the burden of grief, shame, and confusion. She is literally reduced to just pieces of a woman.
After its opening act many films would struggle to maintain any kind of tension curve, but extraordinary camerawork and a towering performance by Vanessa Kirby keeps the story from plateauing. Each character has their own individual journey into darkness, and all are on believable pathways for dealing with grief. While we tiptoe into Sean and Elizabeth’s mindset, it is Martha’s world view that we cannot escape. Closeup shots of her glazed focus and her silent struggle to make sense of what happened amplify the cavernous interiority that is the heart of this film.
Not everyone will engage with the issues raised in this film. For most, it is a hard but gripping watch that mercifully ends softly.
Director: Kornel Mundruczo
Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Ellen Burstyn, Shia LaBeouf