Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are an average Boston couple preparing for the birth of their first child. The film only dwells on who these people are for the opening minutes. She’s a refined officer manager, he’s a down to earth construction worker. They come from separate classes but feel very united as a family.
What follows is a 23-minute unbroken birth sequence. This elaborate scene starts with Martha’s contractions and slowly builds through the birth. Sean calls the midwife to learn she is busy with another delivering mother. Her replacement Eva (Molly Parker) is warm and encouraging, and Benjamin Loeb’s camera puts itself in the middle of the action, following the couple through their apartment. This scene, shot in one single fluid take, perfectly encapsulates the careful planning of a birth that soon becomes unpredictable.
This scene doesn’t cut away and hide the realities of childbirth; it’s loud and lacks dignity, it’s unglamourous and painful. There is blood in the bath, the heart rate is low, the labour is moving quickly. The audience receive the same amount of information as the couple do during this long scene. It’s also bravely graphic, which some may deem unnecessary. There are crowning shots, belching and screaming. It’s definitely not the fluffy birth scenes Hollywood have previously sold us.
Martha only gets to hold her newborn baby in her arms for a few minutes before tragedy strikes. It’s chaotic and heartbreaking, and then the opening card appears on the screen. You truly feel like you’ve been in the middle of this birth, watching an out-of-her depth midwife fail a couple in their modest Boston home.
They take their midwife to court, creating a media frenzy that puts the whole concept of home birth into question. Director and writer Kórnel Mundruczó doesn’t dwell on the trial, avoiding turning the film into a debate about midwifery. Instead, he concentrates on the couple, focusing on how two people rebuild themselves and their relationship after a tragedy.
The following ninety minutes of the film are scattered both through time and in tone. It sensitively handles how you’re supposed to move on after such trauma. Martha goes back to work, seeing children everywhere she goes while her body has yet to catch up with its loss. While it’s not the perfect depiction of loss, it does accurately depict the physical changes a woman has to deal with postpartum, a topic often skated over in the media. Pieces of a Woman gently sits on the line between being uncomfortably honest and representing the realities women go through.
LaBeouf feels a bit like he’s playing himself as the helpless Sean. He’s angry like a feral animal trapped in a cage. He’s struggling with sobriety, a subject dropped too quickly. He brings a nervous energy to the role, butting heads with his mother-in-law before the tragic event. This film was written for Kirby, with LaBeouf’s character thrown aside in the third act in favour of dramatic monologues.
Kirby is committed in her performance, yet her character is a little unfulfilled by the script. Martha is a woman of few words. She’s stiff and unable to process the events of the opening scene. She never settles on one mood, but this script can never settle on one plot. Instead it settles for smack in the face symbolism, like Martha’s obsession with apples and Sean’s career building bridges.
Ellen Burstyn is wasted as Martha’s middle class Holocaust survivor of a mother, Elizabeth. She is severe and judgemental, traits she has passed on to her daughter. She pays for their car and rubs the fact money is no issue into the face of her blue-collar son-in-law. Whilst Martha is written with a delicate sensitivity, her mother lacks the layers. Despite this oddly pitched, cookie-cutter character, Burstyn does her best with it. A monologue late in the film about her upbringing and how it has hardened her is worth a supporting actress nomination alone.
Benny Safdie and Iliza Shlesinger make up Martha’s strained American family. They appear as set dressing during a pivotal get-together scene. Their main role in the story is to have a tense conversation about The White Stripes. The comedy they are supposed to bring to Pieces of a Woman is misjudged, awkward and minimises the impact of Martha’s grief.
A subplot involving Sean and Martha’s cousin should have been entirely cut. It brings nothing to the plot, will minimise viewer sympathy for Sean and slows down the pacing. All the subplots and half-finished thoughts on the American class system really let the many good points of the film down. While the Hungarian-born writers, Mundruczó and Wéber, understand the universal language of trauma and grief, they don’t quite get the dynamic of surviving in America. It’s not an authentic view of America, with a Lars Von Trier dreamlike effect to this version of Boston.
The big climax of Pieces of a Woman comes at a family get together. Martha’s trauma is ultimately minimized, whilst Kirby delivers the big dramatic monologues well, it starts to get emotionally pornographic. The emotions are so explosive and shrill, they start to become inauthentic and boring. Emotional tangents begin to become tiring, some plot points overly repeated whilst others discarded. It’s like the writers have too many things they want to write about.
The meandering final scene is infuriating and makes very little sense. It suffers because of the script’s lack of direction. Kirby’s courtroom monologue will only leave audiences with more questions, putting the entirety of the film into question.
Despite the faults of Pieces of a Woman, Kirby’s portrayal holds it together. When it excels, Pieces of a Woman is a daring portrayal of a woman slowly breaking down. Whilst this drama doesn’t wallow in misery, it doesn’t quite know the emotional direction it wants to go in.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy