Updated: Feb 11, 2021
I have to admit I was a little hesitant to sit down and watch this film. The whole concept seemed too dramatic and too sad to bear. When the movie begins, we see a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), just living their everyday lives, having ordinary conversations. They’re on the cusp of something big, a life-changing experience. They’re rearranging their lives for the baby that clearly will be born very soon. Everything’s ready: the mini-van, the crib, the nursery. And then we have the birth scene.
Even though this happens almost at the beginning of the story, Vanessa Kirby already deserves all the praise she’s been getting. Her performance is one of the most physical depictions of childbirth I have ever seen. Birth scenes are usually made aesthetically pleasing by Hollywood. This is not the case in Pieces of a Woman. This is a single shot, play by play, long, alive, and painful shot sequence. There’s no music to drown the weirdest, most honest groans, the breathing, the burping, the nauseous belches. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó did something ingenious in not introducing jump cuts to this scene and letting us almost feel like we’re watching it in the present, happening in real-time. We can see the source material’s roots, the play “Pieces” by cowriter Kata Wéber and its raw essence.
And finally, we get to the defining moment, the moment where this couple’s joy, jitters, and excitement, turns into despair. The slow account of the loss that triggers the rest of the film will be relatable but hard-to-watch for so many mothers out there.
When we see Martha again, she’s just going back to work after her time off. The after-math may not be as visually impactful as childbirth, but Martha and Sean now have to face a piercing, cold, complicated reality. This movie is an excellent work of character study, getting into each individual’s psyche without relying too much on descriptive dialogue. There’s emotion through looks, through banal activities like walking or eating an apple. Sorrow accompanies Martha wherever she goes, and the brilliance and subtlety of Vanessa Kirby’s acting makes the narrative feel very down to earth. Martha wants to get rid of any reminders of her baby, and her husband wants to keep them. This dynamic is usually simplified in so many movies, but not in this one. These are two people going through the same thing but expressing it in vastly different ways.
The conversations these characters have seem completely plain. Lucky for us, they also seem to be irrelevant for Martha. And it’s not that the story is too straightforward; it’s just an unadorned reality, a representation of loss and the human beings that react to it. Whether it is detachment from one’s feelings, substance abuse, or looking for someone to blame, these are just people trying to remedy their wounds and scars. It is important to note Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn’s outstanding performance as Martha’s pushy, judgemental, and not entirely what meets the eye, mom. The moment you think you have her figured out, she comes in with a tenacious, anguishing monologue that completely takes your breath away.
The story unravels over the course of a few months, showing us the critical heartbreaking moments of the ordeal, culminating in an agonizing court trial. Kirby keeps on shining all the way through the end. I am very confident that we are seeing a top-tier actress in the making. She and Mundruczó were very precise in depicting a woman on the verge, barely surviving, but surviving nonetheless. Martha doesn’t have the classic outburst moment, but we know she is screaming on the inside. She carries the shock of the incident in her eyes as the months go by, but we do get a sense at the end that she overcame the torment, leaving a bittersweet taste in your mouth.
It’s not surprising that the movie and its cast have been nominated for several awards, with Vanessa Kirby already winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, and I’m sure more accolades are to come. Pieces of a Woman covers many topics: grief, addiction, marriage, family, shame, motherhood, among others. And the beauty also relies on the very personal and truthful cinematography. The way it’s static and fluid at the same time. Angles are sometimes perfectly imperfect, just like the characters of the film. I think it’s fair to say that this is a movie you do not want to miss.
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