How do we begin to put ourselves back together after everything falls apart? After our hopes and dreams suddenly go up in smoke? That’s the sort of question that lies at the heart of the often painful Pieces of a Woman, a stark tragedy awash in the harsh coldness of a Massachusetts winter. From director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, this character study benefits from a career-best performance from Vanessa Kirby as Martha, a woman undone after the death of her baby.
Any film dealing with the death of a newborn is bound to be an uneasy watch, and Pieces of a Woman never flinches from the emotional devastation. Indeed, emotional devastation is at the heart of this story, which opens with a quick, somewhat lighthearted intro to some of our players: well-heeled executive Martha, her somewhat lower-class bridge-builder partner Shawn (Shia LaBeouf), and Martha’s passive-aggressive mother Ellen Burstyn, who clearly has nothing good to say about Shawn.
Martha is pregnant, and the couple is buying a new, bigger car with their future family in mind. And while it’s clear that Martha and Shawn come from different economical and social backgrounds they get along quite well, and can be quite playful with each other. But these early fleeting moments of the happiness of their relationship are almost a tease because after the car-buying sequence, Pieces of a Woman jumps into an unbroken 30-minute nightmare home birth scene. As Martha goes into labor, she’s chagrined to learn that her midwife is not available due to another delivery. A substitute, played by Molly Parker, shows up, and Martha is almost immediately tense about the situation,
The casting of Parker here is something of a godsend because the character calls for uncertainty, and Parker is masterful at tapping into that. Does the midwife know what she’s doing, or is she woefully incompetent? That’s a question that will hover in the background of the entire film, and Parker does phenomenal work making the midwife seem both totally in control of the situation and completely out of her depth. She’s calm, kind, and reassuring, yet at the same time, there are moments where she seems to be completely ignoring whatever Martha is telling her.
Shawn tries to remain calm as Martha becomes more and more incapacitated, and the tension builds, and builds, and builds, while the camera moves around the house, from one room to the next, never cutting away. We know something bad is coming – it’s part of the synopsis, after all – but there’s a quick moment where it looks like everything is going to be okay. That the worst of it is over, and things will work out. They don’t, of course, and Pieces of a Woman tumbles further into despair.
This opening scene is so masterfully crafted that it ends up hurting the film as a whole, because nothing that comes after can come close to recapturing those early emotions. Which is a damn shame, because there’s much here to commend – Kirby’s performance most of all. Martha’s emotional state, and the detritus of that harrowing opening, haunt every scene, and Kirby is required to go to some exceedingly difficult places, moving from devastated to furious at the blink of an eye. It is without question the best performance she’s ever delivered, and strongly suggests that Kirby should be one of those performers worth paying close attention to no matter what the film. LaBeouf, too, is excellent, playing Shawn as a man about to chuck six-years of sobriety out the window because he can’t get things back to the way they once were.
Unfortunately, as good as these performances are, the film they occupy never clicks. There are subplots and diversions that feel needless – such as Shawn’s relationship with Martha’s cousin (Sarah Snook), a lawyer being pressed to prosecute the midwife. The court case against the midwife also feels tacked-on at times, save for a moment where Burstyn’s character tearfully explains why it’s so important that someone answer for what happened.
There are also moments that ring false; stagey. Characters are prone to speeches and dramatic declarations that feel, well, like they’re from a movie. And obviously they are, but that’s clearly not the vibe Pieces of a Woman is going for. It strives to be a piece of stark realism, but when it features moments like when Martha gives a tearful courtroom plea, something is cheapened.
Visually, Pieces of a Woman perfectly captures how unforgiven winter in Boston can be – we can feel the chill radiating off of certain scenes, adding to the overall mood. And a recurring motif of showing the passage of time by displaying the further construction of the bridge Shawn was working on at the start is a neat bit of cinematic grammar. But much like the characters themselves, Pieces of a Woman is constantly chasing after what came before, only to never get it back.
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