Film Review: “Pieces of a Woman”
When Grief mixes with Guilt. . . a shattering portrait of loss after the crushing tragedy of a home birth gone horribly wrong.
British actress Vanessa Kirby has garnered critical acclaim in the Netflix series The Crown with her scathing yet heartbreaking portrayal of Princess Margaret. Here, in Pieces of a Woman, Kirby is front and center as a prickly, mercurial young American woman named Martha who, along with her partner Sean (in a raw performance by Shia LeBoeuf), is expecting her first child and has decided to do it her way. With tragic and life-altering results.
Pieces of a Woman is no picnic, be warned. It’s the story of a home birth that goes sideways, with the anticipated human fallout and blame game that comes after, but shown with such a fly-on-the-wall intimacy as to be both enthralling and cringe-producing at once. It’s an impeccably scripted and acted film, with a supporting performance by the incomparable Ellen Burstyn which functions as a mirror through which we grasp the inner workings of Martha’s and Sean’s relationship. And Molly Parker’s comparatively smaller role, as the replacement midwife called in at the last moment, is a marvel. In an elaborately filmed (as well as quite intimate) delivery sequence, she seamlessly conveys the advantages but also the pitfalls of giving birth outside of a hospital setting, and does so with precisely the level of trained calm and Zen one would expect from the job. So when her ‘performative’ demeanor crumbles with her realization that things have become quite dire, quite suddenly, we have a peculiar knee-jerk reaction that immediately looks for someone to blame, and the emotional messiness of that impulse is the engine that propels the entire film.
Helmed by Hungarian film and theatre director, Kornél Mundruczó from a screenplay by real-life partner, Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman is a wonder of honest filmmaking, showing human beings twisted by fate and circumstance, retreating into their least attractive corners of defensiveness and behaving in ways they would consider alien, in calmer times. It’s also a deeply personal story for Mundruczó and Wéber, as it’s loosely based on their own traumatic ordeal following a miscarriage.
The film is Vanessa Kirby’s and she carries it with a grim resolve which is almost palpable, as well as a candor that is breathtaking in its emotional truth and honesty. Her grieving, angry portrayal of Martha — mostly in close-up and often unscripted — is a lesson in silent expression and nuanced gestures. Look for the small details, such as the ubiquitous apples she’s often eating, and her fascination with their seeds, ripe with fertility symbolism. Or the way she watches other people’s children, with what appears to be a mixture of envy and anger, but below that is very much a tinge of guilt.
Much has been written lately about Shia LeBoeuf’s own personal demons, which have often eclipsed his excellent work in movies such as this and the very fine Peanut Butter Falcon (an NSP favorite last year). Unfortunate. His work in this film deserves strong accolades, for his portrayal of an imperfect man who knows he’s outclassed in his relationship, and yet heretofore has brought an Everyman, passionate dynamic into his relationship with Martha, which he’s banking on for the future of their lives together. By way of his questionable ‘coping mechanisms’ after the tragedy, it’s easy to cast moral judgment on Sean, yet his emotional honesty begs us to look more deeply and in doing so, maybe even recognize a bit of ourselves.
Pieces of a Woman is not a feel-good film, to be sure. And to some, it may even feel indulgent, given the mammoth tragedies human beings face every day, everywhere. And to some, it may seem — in an anti-Feminist paradigm — to be insinuating that a woman is not a whole creature unless she is a mother. But all of that aside. . . I couldn’t help but feel that the longer we got to observe these characters in the aftermath of their collective loss, the more the pulse of the film began to take on its own rhythm entirely. To the ironic extent that the centerpiece tragedy eventually feels almost incidental to the roiling undercurrents of emotion seething below the surface of these people’s lives.
When Martha literally takes the stand, it also becomes a figurative moment of epiphany upon which her life — and the lives of those around her — depends on her telling the truth. . . about much more than what happened, but what she finally acknowledges she’s known all along.
Pieces of a Woman is presently streaming on Netflix.
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