TW: sexual assault, miscarriage, substance abuse (addiction/alcohol)
Pieces of a Woman is an intensely personal story of a woman’s life that is upended by the death of her child following a traumatic home birth
Harrowing and heart-breaking in tone, director Kornél Mundruczó explores the knotty subject of grief and its detrimental impact on mental health, relationships and family.
Opening on one of the most harrowing and emotionally-gripping birth scenes I have ever seen, Pieces of a Woman must first be praised for its intimate—although at times intense and uncomfortable—depiction of childbirth. While for some it may put you off having children for life, to me it came across as powerfully brave in its direction, putting the traumatic and painful experience of giving birth and the death of a newborn at the forefront. The 22-minute-long continuous extend take and the constantly roving camera made it feel like you are in that room right alongside Martha, experiencing her pain. This risk-taking direction also comes across in the scene where Sean attacks Martha, as the direction of the camera coupled with the score as he throws a pregnancy ball in her face made me audibly gasp: in shock at both the unexpected turn of events but also in awe at the level of risk Mundruczó employed in the film.
The success of Pieces of a Woman must also largely be credited to Vanessa Kirby and her phenomenal performance as Martha Weiss. One of the best performances I have seen from an actor in a long time, Kirby draws us into Martha’s inner feelings as we experience the confusion, anger and ultimate dissolution that comes with losing a child. It is impossible to take your eyes off of her as she internalises her pain, leading many, including her husband, to arrive at harsh judgements about her. As if there are wrong ways to grieve. Kirby does a brilliant job of drawing our sympathy for this woman who seems to have lost a part of herself in the death of her child and I am sure many parents out there will resonate with Martha’s experiences in the film. After winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, many believe that Kirby will be nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
Kirby’s co-star, Shia LaBeouf, is also brilliant in his role as Martha’s emotionally unstable husband Sean. It’s important to mention how Sean has troubling, notable parallels to the allegations against the actor in real life. However, if we are to move beyond the recent public matters (which, of course, is in no way me condoning his actions), this is possibly LaBoeuf’s best performance yet. His emotional outbursts as he relapses juxtaposes Kirby’s clinical control of her life and apparent blankness of emotion, posing interesting questions about how men and women tackle trauma differently. Sean’s violence, particularly his sexual violence in one scene, also opens up the film to exploring the importance of sexual consent in marriage. Pieces of a Woman is a character-driven film and Mundruczó does a brilliant job of developing his characters into real, authentic people, with major kudos also due for his partner and the film’s writer, Kata Wéber.
However, this film is not without criticism. The plot is very predictable; Sean’s affair and relapse become an expected turn of events which, disappointingly, removes the intended impact when they play out. There are also considerable pacing issues. The first 30 minutes set the bar too high and sadly, the second half cannot live up to its own expectations as the narrative begins to crumble. The plot points about the existence of Martha’s cousin and the fight for prosecution and compensation, for example, come across as inauthentic and silly. I could have also easily done without that frustrating courtroom scene. The pacing slows down in the second act and while this may have been intentional to allow us to experience the grief with the characters, it sadly results in a loss of interest, making many probably want to turn off the film. If you’re going to start off strong, it is important to keep that pace up and Pieces of a Woman fails at this.
Moreover, the film is also saturated with trite symbolism. I get it: the apple, a symbol of fertility. Can we move on? The simple and melancholic cinematography gets lost in the multitudes of metaphor. The ending, for me, is also incredibly problematic. It’s like the film suggests it is okay that she lost this baby as here is a replacement child. It completely disregards her grief and comes across as insensitive on the director’s side.
Pieces of a Woman still, however, leaves a strong impact. It’s by no means an easy watch and it is emotionally draining, but at the same time, it is hard not to praise its brave depiction of such a traumatic topic. Pieces of a Woman left my heart in pieces for Martha and while I won’t be rushing to re-watch it any time soon, I thoroughly recommend it to any film buff looking for something new and thoughtful.
Words by Lucy Lillystone
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