Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writer: Kata Wéber
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie
Streaming on: Netflix
We see the title credits for Pieces of a Woman for the first time half an hour into it. Martha, who has just gone into labour, loses her daughter the moment she is born. For the few seconds that Martha got to hold her, we observe a bond that forges the rest of the film — a mother-daughter relationship that could have been. But the film only truly begins after the title credits. It marks the birth of a tragedy — the kind that is mired in intense emptiness.
The story follows Martha (Vanessa Kirby, The Crown) who lately suffered the loss of her newborn. Her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf, Fury), who is also in anguish, starts growing distant as she becomes numb by the day. Their pain is not just emotional and social, but spiritual, too. They disagree over the burial of their child; whether they should take legal action against the midwife responsible for the birth; and the role Martha's mother (Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) plays in their relationship. The causes of their woe are obscured because of the people around them — they are invaded by an atmosphere of familial hostility and discomfort. Not only does this fracture their marriage beyond reconciliation, but these elements also coalesce into what would gradually alienate Martha.
She is bound by the social structure around her — Martha's mother, husband, and sister, all, project their scars onto her. As a result, she is denied the fundamental agency to mourn. And the film's true essence lies here — how loss and mortality penetrate across the layers of sorrow. It blurs the lines between grief and anger, we are unable to demarcate where one ends and the other begins. And arguably, this is the film's biggest achievement. Its commentary is able to endure the philosophical and spiritual complexities that accompany death. It never pares Martha's plot down to a feeble sob story that is just capable enough of sweeping awards.
However, this procedural about the human psyche lacks the narrative bravura to elicit much from its viewers. The film never lived up to its heart-rending opening sequence. An hour into it, hints of manipulative storytelling started surfacing. The background score was a tad forced and so was the manner in which it panned the camera around the actors. After a point, I felt indifferent to everyone's plight — its obsession with drama came across as structurally traditional. We have seen this portrait, character study before — you know what to expect or how you are supposed to feel because it subtly echoes the headlines of its cinematic ancestors. Essentially, it does not have anything new to offer, belying the film's spiritual exploration.
Vanessa Kirby, on the other hand, puts on a performance that does more than enough justice to her bereaved character. Kirby's deadpan expressions and impassivity are evocative of Martha's claustrophobia — not only does she confront her own traumatic burdens but everyone else's as well. And that burden is also a cause for her emotional liberation — a dualism that Kirby portrays brilliantly. LaBeouf plays Sean with equal conviction. In one of the scenes where he broke down thinking about their daughter, I couldn't help but feel awful. At the same time, he brings out the flaws of his character through his apathetically glazed look impeccably. The performance to watch out for, though, is Ellen Burstyn's portrayal of Martha's mother. She is controlling and manipulative but holds no malice. Her realism prevents you from understanding how you feel about her given how well-written her character is. Together, with terrific performances such as these and a fairly nuanced narrative, Pieces of a Woman does deserve a watch.
Pieces of a Woman is available on Netflix.