While slightly overshadowed by legal issues surrounding star Shia LaBeouf, Netflix’s new drama “Pieces of a Woman” has been making waves since its limited release in December and streaming debut on Jan. 7. Starring Venessa Kirby and LeBeouf as couple Martha and Sean who deal with the fallout of a traumatic home birth their child didn’t survive, “Pieces of a Woman” has been touted as a prominent award season contender for over a month and was even recognized at the Venice International Film Festival in September specifically with the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for Kirby’s performance. It’s an intense and personal story about trauma, loss, forgiveness and genuine human pain that has many flashes of greatness that are slightly softened by its inability to carry its emotional weight through the entire run time.
“Pieces of a Woman” starts off strong with an introduction to the two main characters, construction worker Sean and executive Martha, and brings us into their home where they plan to have an at-home birth. From there the entire first half hour is a magical display of single-shot filmmaking as the camera literally follows these two through the birth process along with midwife Eva (Molly Parker) who eventually becomes the target of a lawsuit for the child’s death. This long unbroken shot lasts over twenty minutes presenting us with a detailed “fly on the wall” style viewing of a woman’s traumatic experience with Kirby completely owning the spotlight from start to finish. This is the best part of the movie, and also the most disturbing as it presents us with a superbly acted and shot examination of an extremely personal event we don’t feel we should be privileged to see. It takes half an hour to the minute for the title card to even show up because this isn’t just the first act, it’s the setup for the entire film, the catalyst behind all the conflict we’re about to see unfold. THIS is how you start a movie and bring your audience in. Sadly, the rest of the film isn’t quite as smooth or engaging but this same single-shot style litters the rest of the production with fine results.
The next hour and a half explores the interpersonal drama that plays out as a result of the loss including how Martha and Sean each deal with the grief with a heavy emphasis on Martha’s experience as Sean and Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) attempt to influence Martha’s decision making on how to handle the body and pursue Eva for damages. It has a few too many slow parts for my liking and while I enjoyed LeBeouf’s performance this really is about the mother’s grief so when we see what’s going in his world we kind of know we’re only seeing it for context into how he will eventually treat Martha. Venessa Kirby maintains a strong performance the entire film and you can see the gears turning every scene as she contemplates her next move and how to deal with her grief. Ellen Burstyn also deserves credit as Martha’s mother although I feel some of the writing for her character is a bit overdramatic. She sells it all the same. All this conflict, this pulling and tugging at Martha and everyone trying to direct her, all leads up to a court case in the final half hour where Martha has to come to peace with her loss in a powerful display of honesty that might not fully embrace the film’s emotional weight, but still serves as a great moment of catharsis for not only Martha but any viewer who has suffered a loss in a situation out of their hands.
“Pieces of a Woman” has a strong message that rings loud a clear through the film in every character, and that’s the destructive effects grief can have on an unstable mind or relationship. Martha feels like the most centered person in this movie and yet she deals with the most pain of everyone, sometimes shutting down and other times letting her emotions show. Almost everyone else in the movie has some sort of personal motive or reasoning for wanting Martha to respond in certain ways whether it’s Sean seeking his own peace of mind, Martha’s mom trying to inspire strength in her daughter or her cousin who is the attorney trying to win the case against Eva. In lesser hands all of these characters would simply be secondary antagonists but in the capable hands of director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber we see a family of fleshed out human beings all just trying to make peace with something in their own way. We might not agree with all of them and their reactions may or may not be our own, but the end result is a cinematic display of the variations of grief that come to light in traumatic realities. It is uncomfortable, it’s sad, it’s frustrating, but that’s what makes this film so fascinating and while the final result might not fully capture all of these emotional complexities to perfection, what it does provide is important and effective insight that makes its characters feel human and, hopefully, some viewers who have suffered through the same kind of loss feel understood.
“Pieces of a Woman” isn’t a perfect film as it fails to carry the momentum of its first act through its full over-two-hour run time, but it offers more than enough insight into the human experience to be worthy of praise. The honesty incorporated into the on-screen tragedy, both in the depiction of the birth through a fantastic unbroken shot and in the aftermath, is striking and the sincere while engaging performances bringing the different characters to life help create a believable examination of one woman’s journey through grief, loss and facing the potential fallout of a quest for answers. This is not an easy movie to watch, especially for anyone who has suffered a loss in pregnancy or knows anyone who has dealt with such a situation, but that’s the beauty of film. It transports us into experiences we might, and in this case hopefully never will have to face and helps us as people understand both the cause and effect of human emotions more clearly. It doesn’t completely stick the landing but “Pieces of a Woman” is a fine display of human storytelling that provides some powerful insight into one of the worst traumas a parent can endure.