Pieces of a Woman
A showcase of excellent performance and one particularly affecting scene
Motherhood is a subject that has been explored in film in an exhaustive number of ways, from horror in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), to comedy in Juno (2007). Motherhood can come in a variety of ways as well, and they have been duly explored in cinema from artificial insemination (central to Maggie’s Plan (2015)), and even surrogate mothers (the hit comedy Baby Mama (2008)). The darker aspects of motherhood, has only recently begun to be explored. The highest profile film surrounding this subject was Tully (2018), which creatively explored the toll that post-partum depression can have. In Pieces of a Woman (2020) there is another bold dive into a specific trauma that can come from giving birth.
Pieces of a Woman is the story of partners Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), who are pregnant and have decided to have a home birth. However, during the homebirth, something goes wrong leaving both parents traumatized. The film takes a look at one day each month as we see Martha and Sean cope with their incredibly impactful event.
The film is directed by Hungarian Kornel Mudruczo, who brings about his decisive tone and style to the film. Pieces of a Woman is certainly anchored by the homebirth scene, which is shot to look like a single continuous 30-minute take, forming the entire prologue of the film. The choice of long and tracking takes is utilized throughout the film, effectively helping viewers be placed near the uncomfortable situations that our characters undergo. Mudruczo is also able to bring his signature realist and naturalist tone to Pieces of a Woman, crafting the stylistic aspects of the film as if it were a documentary or a home film, where nothing seems scripted. This helps bring about an untethered and slightly unstructured approach to the film where the actors are completely let loose.
Mudruczo is blessed with a trifecta of stellar performers. It is not easy to stay in character during a long and moving tracking shot, let alone performing such an intense scene as giving birth, but Kirby and LaBeouf are phenomenal in the leads. The third performer I wanted to mention was veteran Ellen Burstyn who has a miniscule role, and yet is able to chew her scenery so that she stands out amongst the lead performers. Burstyn is such a talented performer you feel as if every role of hers doesn’t tap her full capabilities; it would be great to see her get bigger roles further on. The crux of the film, however, is Kirby’s. She is the central focus of the film, as Mudruczo analyzes her reaction and digestion of the trauma. This is the first lead role for Kirby after standing out as a supporting character in The Crown (2016-), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). To jump to a lead role after being accustomed to the sidelines can sometimes be hard for performers, as they need time to adjust; however, Kirby took on this incredibly tough role with stride. She is able to bring about a true authenticity to her every moment. Her performance exudes the confidence of a veteran performer, while also inhabiting the most minute details of Martha’s character. I was pleased to see her restrained in the birth scene, where she exudes a sense of strength in her character that many real mothers do, and which Hollywood has exaggerated with birth scenes that feature hysterically screaming mothers. Kirby gives Martha a sense of loss and trauma but shows a certain reluctance or denial in digesting the event, helping add an added layer of emotional complexity to the entire film.
Pieces of a Woman is anchored by the homebirth scene, with the resulting narrative being an analysis of the trauma and how it affects those around it. Mudruczo’s ability to create atmosphere and immersion help in transmitting the sense of confusion and pointlessness that Martha feels, and yet this seems to be the limit of the entire film. I understand that Mudruczo is trying to convey how frustrating and lost Martha and Sean feel after their trauma, but after two or three scenes viewers get the idea. Instead of moving on with its story or exploration, Pieces of a Woman remains stuck with this concept so that the rest of the film feels like redundant padding to elongate the runtime and get towards the final cathartic scene. After a while the film begins to lose its grip and point, leaving viewers slightly vacant, empty, and frustrated. Stylistically this may make sense with the theme of the film, but narratively it proves to be inept, the characters don’t seem to be changing or learning, and seem to have an unexpected turn by the end. Mudruczo would have benefitted from building up and tweaking his characters throughout, but they seemed to be left by the wayside. That doesn’t mean the film gets to be boring, the performers, style and especially the fantastical cinematography are able to moor viewers to enjoying what’s up on screen.
In the end, Pieces of a Woman proves to be a fascinating showcase of brilliant performances and one particularly affecting 30 minute scene. However, the rest of the film feels slightly empty and out of ideas, wandering aimlessly until its time for the predictable catharsis. As a result, Pieces of a Woman still remains recommendable, if only because its strong points prove to be unique enough to outweigh its lazier ones.