Written by Kata Wéber and directed by Kornél Mundruczó, Pieces of a Woman is inspired by the couple's own experience of the loss of their child. The pièce de résistance of the film is a 24-minute sequence that follows the lead characters, Sean and Martha, a couple, preparing for the home birth of their daughter. The camera relentlessly follows the two actors making it appear as a single shot while moving in a rhythm that matches the emotional turbulence unfolding on screen.
More often than not the camera is focused on Vanessa Kirby's face; she plays Martha Weiss. Her face serves as a map for us even if we don't always see the graphic details of the birth. There is a gamut of emotions: she is frantic, at times delirious in pain as she hurls abuses, joyous for a few moments and ultimately shocked before the screen goes black.
Without much ado, the two characters and how different they are has been established. Shia LaBeouf's Sean is rugged, passionately expressive and open; Martha on the other hand is evidently upper-class and therefore sophisticated and comparatively more opaque. It immediately makes sense that two people as different as them will navigate grief in opposing ways.
LaBeouf's own troubled life seems to seep onto celluloid as Sean, a recovering addict predictably dives back into drugs and alcohol in the aftermath of the tragedy. He is someone who lives on the surface and reaches out for connection. Desperate for companionship in a relationship that is falling apart he starts seeking other people in his loneliness.
It is hard to not imagine LaBeouf's Sean to be a version of LaBeouf himself. Though he has always been deeply familiar with controversy, LaBeouf's remarkable film oeuvre has been marred by recent allegations of sexual and emotional abuse in a past relationship. Sean too is shown to become violent towards Martha later in the film as he trudges through depression. In one scene, he pushes to have sex with her which she doesn't refuse outright but it is apparent that she doesn't want to. Once she agrees, Sean then leaves the house boiling in anger. In another, he throws a training ball at her face in a drunken state. Just as in Honey Boy, LaBeouf appears busy exorcising past demons in Pieces too.
Martha, conversely, turns inward and hardens. The only way she knows she can survive this is by erasing the loss in her mind. Right after the birth of her daughter for the few moments that she held her baby, she remarks on how beautiful the baby's eyes are. Towards the end of the film when she stands as a witness in court and is asked what her baby looked like, she can't recall anything. We realize that she has all but successfully managed to stamp out the memory of her child; everything but her smell.
Martha has hidden her suffering from everyone and even herself, because of which her ordeal is in some ways more interesting than Sean's because we're not sure in what shape her veiled sadness will reveal itself.
Then there is Martha's relationship with her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who sees Martha's personal loss as a "failure" and not a freak incident. Feeling cornered by her husband and mother who are keen on waging a trial against the midwife against her wishes, Martha's pent-up anger explodes in a visceral scene.
For a grieving mother, who has lost a baby at infancy, it is far more complex than just a death, which is anyway unimaginably painful. It is not just the stares she is subjected to when she returns to work or the unsolicited exhortations she has to bear. Her body is marked with reminders (her breasts were still producing milk, she was on her period) of what could easily have been and for some unfathomable reason isn't.
The narrative then drifts to Sean's infidelity at which point the parts of the film starts to feel splintered. While the film began as a brutally real study of grief, it gains a more formulaic feel as it progresses. Courtroom dramas tend to veer into hackneyed territory in the wrong hands. Pieces of a Woman does not entirely turn into a clichéd court room drama but an inauthenticity creeps in that does not match the searing honesty of the beginning.
Despite being punctuated with solid performances, Pieces of a Woman is unmistakably a one-woman show. Vanessa Kirby's singular performance (which was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice last year) ties the script together and makes the arc of her character convincing. Her moods are palpable – sometimes like a chameleon, within a single sequence. As she gasps through labour pain, she compliments the midwife on her glasses. In another scene when an elderly lady bears down on her about the tragedy she is reactionless, her face as blank as a sheet of white paper. In a third scene she laughs coldly when her mother pleads with her to allow a burial for the baby.
While it is about the different forms of trauma and how they belong to each individual in their personal way, Pieces of a Woman is most about the agony of a woman and what it takes for her to emancipate herself for herself.