THE STORY – Martha (Kirby) is a tightly wound executive and Shawn (LaBeouf) a construction worker with a volatile past. They have found love across a class divide and are eagerly expecting their first baby. But complications with a midwife (Parker) interrupt their planned home birth, sending the couple spiralling into tragedy in one shattering, bravura sequence. What to do with their grief? At first Martha responds quietly, her body still telling her she is pregnant. Shawn looks for someone to blame for their loss, his fury ramping up alongside his helplessness. Martha’s mother (Burstyn) introduces her own unhelpful expectations. As Martha’s attempts to cope clash with the attitudes of her community, she realizes her only means of survival is to forge her own path.
THE CAST – Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Jimmie Fails & Iliza Schlesinger
THE TEAM – Kornél Mundruczó (Director) & Kata Wéber (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
After a short introduction to our main characters, Kornél Mundurczó’s “Pieces of a Woman” launches into its first big scene, a stunning long take of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) at home as Martha goes into labor and gives birth with the help of a midwife. Refusing to cut away where most other films would do so, this opening is punishing to sit through, just like giving birth is for most women. We are unable to breathe as Martha lets out blood-curdling guttural screams of pain as her body experiences contractions and eventually goes into labor to push her daughter out of her, all while the midwife (a replacement for their actual midwife, who is in the middle of someone else’s labor at the time) looks concerned and keeps mentioning the baby’s heart rate. And just when there’s finally a respite, once the baby is born and starts to cry, we have just enough time to catch our breath before something catches the midwife’s eye: the newborn baby has turned blue.
Nothing else in “Pieces of a Woman” is as intense as that scene, but it sets the tone for the film very well: This is an unrelentingly grueling experience of misery and pain. Thankfully, in the lead role, Vanessa Kirby gives an utterly spellbinding performance that makes it impossible to look away. Martha is withdrawn at first, barely speaking and all but ignoring Shawn, who is the more emotional of the two. This unexpected twist on the typical gender roles for this type of story works well, although LaBeouf leans more into the melodramatic aspects of the role than he probably should. Kirby is the real story here, modulating her performance perfectly to track just where Martha is in her grieving process as each scene skips forward by a month. The way she hollows out in the first scenes after the tragedy makes Martha feel like a zombie going through the motions of her experience, almost completely devoid of any inner life. But as time goes on, Kirby reveals that Martha is not hollow at all, but instead a bottomless pit of despair and rage that she releases in pointed outbursts at loved ones who want her to show that she is feeling a certain way. These outbursts feel melodramatic on the page, but in Kirby’s hands they feel organic – we can tell from her tightened body language and tautly held face that something is going to break out at any moment.
As the film goes on and becomes a courtroom drama in the last act, it also becomes more melodramatic. Mundurczó maintains tight control over the tone of the film, but the shift from heightened realism at the start to melodrama makes the film less interesting and engaging on the whole. But once again, Kirby is riveting in two courtroom scenes where Martha finally releases everything else and lets herself be open and vulnerable to the world around her. The change in her voice in these scenes is heart-wrenching as we see Martha being forced to reckon with what happened in a way she had not considered, and crumbles from the inside out.
Mundurczó’s style, which favors long takes with the camera getting uncomfortably close to the actors in emotional moments, makes the film incredibly difficult to watch. Thankfully, the actors are always compelling, and in the case of Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother, downright phenomenal. Gifted with a gut-wrenching monologue about how her own mother gave birth to her in secret in an abandoned shack and how they both had to fight and scrape to survive, Burstyn turns in a performance that befits her status as an acting legend. She turns Mundurczó’s oppressively tight framing into an advantage as she grabs hold of your heart and dares you to look away.
The addition of heavy melodrama on top of the oppressive despair of the film makes the second half of “Pieces of a Woman” feel a bit lesser than the first, even as the performers rise to the occasion. Mundurczó handles the shift in tone well, but the melodrama of the second half of Kata Wéber’s screenplay is much more familiar than the stuff of the first half, in which it flips the traditional gender roles in its unsparing look at the aftermath of the death of a child. It allows Martha to be a truly difficult, complex woman, and we don’t get good examples of those often enough in cinema. She’s a great character, and Vanessa Kirby gives a great performance. She is able to pick up all the pieces of this woman scattered throughout the screenplay and put them together to create quite the incredible portrait. It’s daring work that should be rewarded in any year, and surely will be when the story of 2020 cinema is written.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The use of long takes heightens the power of the story and Vanessa Kirby’s spellbinding performance.
THE BAD – Overdoes the melodramatic aspects of the story.
THE OSCARS – Best Actress (Nominated)