Pieces of a Woman
- Out now
- Netflix subscription fee
The grief and trauma of a stillbirth is a subject few directors are willing to make a movie about, and in a way this is reassuring; it is almost certainly a subject that is easier to get wrong than right, and most filmmakers are not up to such a task. Of course it is important for stories like this to be told, but it must be done with a certain tact. To create a faithful portrayal of the shock of a stillbirth, the life-splintering grief associated with it, and the way it ripples through a family requires the filmmaker to have either an extensive knowledge or a deeply personal experience at hand. During the highly emotional opening 30 minutes of Pieces of a Woman—which covers the time from Martha (played by Vanessa Kirby, who will certainly be in contention for Best Actress for this performance) going into labour to the heart-wrenching minutes after her baby is born—I was reassured that Mundruczó was approaching the subject matter with the required delicacy and nuance. The birth scene trades a more traditional, dramatised pacing for a visceral realism; through long takes that drift around Martha and Sean’s (Shia LaBeouf) apartment, our sense of time gets synchronised with theirs and we, like them, are left awaiting the birth with anxious anticipation. We begin to sense just how much colour this child will bring to their lives which, up until this point, appear to have plodded along monotonously amid a cold, impersonal landscape.
The success of Pieces of a Woman’s opening act is its ability to connect the audience with Martha and Sean’s relationship in under 20 minutes (introducing us to the jokes they make, their family dynamic, the jobs they have, and the satisfaction they have for those jobs), and then using that emotional investment to generate the thrust that makes the eventual punch to the gut so paralysing. It is a shame that the film struggles to stay engaging (and authentic) beyond the opening act. Several subplots are used to support the final two thirds of the movie—from questions surrounding Sean’s fidelity, to elaborations on the relationship between Martha and her mother (Ellen Burstyn), to a hastily thrown together courtroom drama—none of which stands up by itself, and all of which trample on the feet of the others. As such, Pieces of a Woman ends up being disjointed; it is built up by its adherence to reality, only to be slowly pulled apart from all sides by clunky plot points that degrade the opening act’s strident authenticity.