In the opening scenes of 'Pieces of a Woman', Vanessa Kirby ('Mr Jones', 'Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw') and Shia LaBeouf ('The Peanut Butter Falcon', 'Honey Boy') play characters who look the part of a happy young couple. She's a pregnant professional; he's a rough-around-the-edges working class bro who makes her laugh. Six minutes after we get to know them, she goes into labour. It's okay, though, since they've been preparing for a home birth and have a midwife on speed-dial.
Cue: a 25-minute-long unbroken take, ending in tragedy.
There's no obfuscation - we clearly see what happens during the birth. Kirby's Martha is stressed out, in pain but determined to deliver her baby at home. LaBeouf's Sean is clearly panicked but doing everything he can to save his partner and their child. Eva (Molly Parker, 'Madeline's Madeline'), the midwife, is genuinely helpful and supportive, not wanting the mother to press the panic button, and, in one of the most memorable moments, becoming genuinely scared herself when she hears the baby struggling to breathe. Director Kornél Mundruczó ('Jupiter's Moon') shows us how blurry things become during stressful situations, how everyone does what they can, how it isn't really black and white, and how traumatic past experiences can alter the memory of the event, shadowing it with negative emotions.
You really have to watch it to admire the raw artistry on display. It all rests on Kirby's flawless, primal performance, which is excruciating to observe (in the best way possible). The scene is aided by Benjamin Loeb's graceful yet nervous cinematography, the warm, soft tones afforded by the colour grading, set design and the film stock the movie was shot on, and of course the equally affecting supporting performances.
After that shockingly raw scene, the movie dissipates into a more muted melodrama, but 'Pieces of a Woman' is still captivating throughout. The film's screenplay was adapted by Kata Wéber from her 2018 play of the same name, based on her own experience suffering a miscarriage (of a child she conceived with the director). It's clearly an incredibly personal, deeply realised piece of filmmaking.
Grief is slow and different for everyone, and this film portrays it from several different angles and in complex ways. Martha and Sean have fundamentally different ways of coping - one forces the other to have sex, they leave jobs, drink, and cheat, all in order to dissociate themselves from their emotions. These actions become regressive, which doesn't allow them to fully move on. The death of their unborn baby is like a knife piercing through a ribbon of their family's life, splitting it forever.
Hidden family conflicts resurface. Martha feels lesser and not good enough in the eyes of her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, 'The Exorcist', 'Requiem for a Dream'). Elizabeth projects her own generational trauma, high standards and contempt on her daughter. Sean also has to face the hostility of his would-be mother-in-law. The entire family forces Martha to face her trauma by insisting that she punish the scapegoat for it, Eva. This leads to a climactic trial scene that reminded me a bit of Robert Benton's 'Kramer vs Kramer', where a mother is judged for her motherhood.
Ellen Burstyn has some blistering moments of unfiltered emotion. "Do you want to put your baby's body on a mass grave, like an animal?" Elizabeth barks at her daughter when informed of her plans to donate the child's organs.
Mundruczó's film also reminded me of 'Marriage Story' as it slowly and plainly traces the emotional progression of the characters. Kirby is spectacular at conveying her inner pain, guilt, and turmoil - the internalisation of her character's grief is reminiscent of Casey Affleck in Kenneth Lonergan's 'Manchester By The Sea'. LaBeouf's performance is powerful, and Ellen Burstyn has some blistering moments of unfiltered, wounded emotion. "Do you want to put your baby's body on a mass grave, like an animal?" Elizabeth barks at her daughter when informed of her plans to donate the child's organs.
It's a tremendously sad movie, but it also avoids being a miserablist wallow, portraying grief as something that doesn't arrive in neat stages, but in unpredictable waves with forceful undercurrents. The film is also unpredictable in its own way, setting up sensational plot developments that never arrive, ones that would break the film's concentration on people trying to understand why so much weight has landed on their shoulders, and how - or even whether - they can learn to carry it.
'Pieces of a Woman' demonstrates how sometimes, even despite everyone trying their best, dark outcomes happen, and we don't always get an answer for why. Thankfully, it also shows that there is path for achieving post-traumatic growth, even under the most shattering of circumstances.