There aren’t many stories told about miscarriages and stillbirth; both are still taboos that leave many women suffering in silence. In Pieces of a Woman, a devastating stillbirth is at the core of the story, showing us a shattered mother and the people touched by her anguish.
Kornél Mundruczó’s English debut penned by his partner Kata Wéber focuses on Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) after the shocking loss of their daughter. The first 30 minutes of the film is an uninterrupted one take of the birth. We watch as the miracle of life begins, only for it to take a turn when the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) detects distress from the baby. What follows is one of the most challenging scenes to watch this year, the camera zeroing in on Martha, Sean, and Eva as they desperately try to deliver the baby safely. The mix of joy, anxiety, then anguish they felt at that time is felt by the viewer.
After the loss of their daughter, Martha and Sean grieve in different ways. Martha is pressured to grieve based on how society expects her to, while Sean, with good intentions in mind, tries to help Martha but is shunned by her. This causes a rift between them, for a mother’s pain is something not even her husband could understand. Her overbearing wealthy mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), expects her to grieve a certain way and tries to point her to that direction. She puts out the perspective of being a Holocaust survivor to her daughter, in which she deals with trauma differently. There is this misunderstanding between mother and daughter that persisted throughout the film. Nevertheless, Martha deals with her broken heart the way she wants and stays true to herself.
As the story progressed, the strong start made the following acts lacking. The film was riddled with too many metaphors that were hit or miss. Even so, the impressive cast had compelling performances, particularly LaBeouf, though it seems he is playing himself: a fragile man just overcoming his addictions. Burstyn’s supporting performance role as Martha’s domineering mother is her most notable role since Requiem for a Dream. Then there’s the titular woman, played by the astounding Kirby.
Kirby garnered the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for her role in the film, and deservedly so. She gave such a commitment to her craft and delivered one of the best performances of the year. After always playing supporting roles like in The Crown, where she plays Princess Margaret, Pieces of a Woman gave her the spotlight she is worthy of.
The film is a powerful love letter to mothers who have lost a part of themselves; a loss so terrible that it shatters a woman, that she has to pick up the pieces and put it back together herself. Nobody around her knows what she went through. It makes her a new person. This kind of loss is huge and something so personal to mothers like Martha, yet grief is what makes her story resonate; it is what connects us to her.