Movie Review: Pieces of a Woman
By Matthew Huntley
January 19, 2021
“Pieces of a Woman” is a somber, well-meaning drama that often feels like it exists on two levels. On one, it earnestly and effectively examines a tragedy from multiple perspectives, allowing the ensuing events to play out naturally as it observes its characters processing and reacting to their mixed emotions. On the other, it subscribes to standard dramatic tropes that temper the film’s efficacy and credibility. Fortunately, most of “Pieces of a Woman” exists on the former and more often than not it inspires thought and reflection rather than our wondering what it could have been.
Note: To describe “Pieces of a Woman” in further detail requires that I give away what happens in the extended opening sequence (all of which takes place before the title appears). However, if you’ve read any description of the film, you’re likely already aware of it.
The Boston-set story opens in September, a time of year that that actually means something here, because from the very first frame, Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography, which will be greatly utilized throughout (which isn’t especially common for a drama of this sort), makes palpable the frigid, piercing air that’s about to blanket the city in the coming months. Loeb photographs the urban settings coldly and unapologetically, which is fitting, because the situation in which the characters are about to find themselves is equally bleak and lonesome.
We meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), an unmarried couple with a baby on the way. Of the two, Martha is the breadwinner and has a more prestigious career in a Boston high-rise, where her colleagues have just thrown her a baby shower. Sean is a construction worker and the company he works for has been charged with building a new city bridge (“I promised my daughter she’d be the first one to cross this bridge,” he screams).
Sean is a bit of hothead and has been sober for nearly six and a half years after feeding an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and LaBeouf plays him with the same rage-fueled intensity he displayed in the 2019’s “Honey Boy” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” He’s just as strong and convincing here, proving the former child actor now has a knack for playing men with a short fuse. He and Kirby, an English actress best known for playing Princess Margaret on Netflix’s “The Crown,” are well-matched, showing Martha and Sean as a couple who are used to each other and mostly content but not entirely in love.
One night, in their modest row house, Martha begins having contractions. She specifically opted for a home delivery, so when her water finally does break, she and Sean aren’t’ too concerned because this was all part of the plan. However, mild panic starts to kick in when they learn their intended midwife is unavailable. The agency sends a substitute instead, a woman named Eva (Molly Parker).
Eva seems perfectly capable and knowledgeable to handle the job, and in what continues as one, uninterrupted take of at least 20 minutes — a decision meant to heighten the tension rather than show off the filmmakers’ technical skills — the camera fluidly navigates around the townhouse’s tight space as the delivery unfolds, moving from the living room to the bathroom to the bedroom. Having already expressed concern for the baby’s low heartrate, Eva is relieved when she finally comes out and eventually starts crying. However, things take an almost immediate turn for the worse when the newborn turns blue and purple.
Cut to black. It’s now October and, sadly, the baby didn’t survive.
This sorrowful opening sets up the film’s subsequent narrative threads and character arcs that director Kornél Mundruczó attempts to weave together from Kata Wéber’s screenplay, which, despite being about many things, isn’t about too much. The main question at the center of each strand is how do people continue to live and communicate with one another after an unexpected, heartbreaking event occurs? And how might said event exacerbate other conflicts that were already in place? What new ones might it introduce?
Of course, “Pieces of a Woman” is neither the first of its kind nor the first familial tragedy to pose such questions. Hollywood has long delivered films with similar subject matter for decades (“Ordinary People,” “In the Bedroom,” “The Rabbit Hole”). Nevertheless, there are always new aspects of grief and loss to explore, and what’s notable about “Pieces of a Woman” is the way it lives up to its name, which could have just as easily been “Pieces of People,” because the film gets us to see that all the things that happen to us, all the ups and downs we experience, and all the people with whom we interact, are just transitory components of a much broader life framework. Even though we hope for the good “pieces” to last forever and the bad to fade away quickly, we have to remind ourselves they’re all temporary. Perhaps by remembering this simple truth, we can better cherish those things we care about and more proactively let go of those things that cause us pain.
“Pieces of a Woman” knows this isn’t easy and the film suggests it can be even harder when we feel like something has been taken from us. Following the terrible incident at the beginning, the characters deal with their expected feelings of sadness, anger and resentment, but another aspect of death it explores, one that’s not often depicted on screen, is the sudden pressure placed on people to grieve, make decisions, and return to normalcy as soon as possible, as if they’re on time limit.
Mundruczó creates tension as the characters make burial arrangements; argue with one another over trivial matters like epitaphs; process stares and condolences from strangers; wander aimlessly in public places; and struggle to find the right answers, which the film makes clear there may not be any. “Pieces of a Woman” knows that death is something everyone handles differently and I appreciated it not trying to espouse advice or guidance. Rather, it focuses on showing how these specific people deal with it and it’s mindful not to suggest whether their approach is right or wrong. Because it views its characters as human, and therefore flawed, we don’t judge them as much as hope they find a way to keep on living. After all, it gets us to imagine ourselves enduring their situation, and we’d welcome the same compassion.
How do the characters manage their sudden, unexpected circumstances? Martha does what most of would probably do, which is return to work and seek distraction, although she draws looks of surprise, perhaps even condemnation, from her co-workers, who appear to think she has a lot of nerve to come back to the office so soon (luckily the movie spares us a “Jerry Maguire”-like flip-out moment, during which Martha might have yelled, “What are you all looking at?!”). All the while, she’s reminded of her baby as she sees children on the metro, smells apples in the grocery store, and inspects a ladybug on her finger.
Sadly, and probably what happens often in this scenario, Martha and Sean grow increasingly distant and bitter toward each other, struggling with intimacy and bickering about what baby things to keep and throw away. They become quiet, reserved and monosyllabic, and their relationship devolves into one that makes them more like roommates than partners.
It doesn’t help that Sean suddenly starts seeing eye to eye with Martha’s dementia-stricken yet still controlling mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who has never been shy about voicing her opinion. Both she and Sean are eager to move forward with the baby’s burial, going so far as to name her without Martha’s consent. What’s more is that Sean and Elizabeth are adamant about bringing a lawsuit against the midwife, and to speed things along, Sean seeks the legal services (and other benefits) of Martha’s cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a criminal lawyer. This development leads to the film’s final courtroom sequence, which might have been much too plot and story for the movie to take on, but the way it plays out is actually quite moving and believable.
In addition to a drama, “Pieces of a Woman” serves as a cautionary tale because it suggests that when tragedy strikes, we become prone to hasty and reactionary behavior, and unless we take the proper time to process our feelings and communicate, we can easily enter a downward spiral of loneliness, self-destruction and vindictiveness. The film’s insights and messages aren’t especially new or revelatory, but Mundruczó and his cast relate them effectively, especially when the camera simply observes the characters think and behave. In one of the most heartbreaking and well-acted scenes, two people ride in silence to the airport. Eventually, one of them gets out, makes a gesture, and walks away. Mundruczó, proves to be an economic storyteller because this is all he gives us, and it’s all need to view the moment as truth.
And yet, for all its subtlety and authenticity, there are many times throughout “Pieces of a Woman” that it subscribes to obvious, tired conventions, which feel tacked on and suspend our investment in the story. The film often exchanges its observant, down-to-earth approach for heightened melodrama, which gives it a sense of falsehood and histrionic grandstanding.
Consider, for instance, the automatic disdain Elizabeth seems to have for Sean. Their relationship feels like it was forged out of the old “judgmental, stuck-up mother-in-law who doesn’t like her daughter’s partner” tactic. Granted, LaBeouf and Burstyn eventually give their characters more depth and conviction, but it was hard to shake off this initial set up.
Another aspect that feels forced and predictable is Sean’s descending back into drugs and alcohol, as if the only reason his character was made an addict in the first place was so he could fall off the wagon later on. I’m not saying the trauma he experiences wouldn’t cause an addicted person to relapse, but the screenplay practically made it a foregone conclusion and it doesn’t take the time deal with it properly thereafter. The same can be said of the affairs both Martha and Sean have, which are so short-lived and empty they seem better suited for a cheap soap opera.
There’s also the ending, which feels artificially upbeat and wraps everything up too quickly given all that’s transpired. Mundruczó forces blatant symbolism upon us with shots like hands holding and apple seedlings sprouting, and even though one could argue these elements give us hope, they also come across as more patronizing than genuine.
Fortunately, “Pieces of a Woman” has a greater share of truthful beats than contrived ones, and we ultimately leave it feeling touched and reflective. We come to empathize with the characters and ponder how we might act in their situation, both emotionally and logistically. It reminds us that when life upends us, it’s best not to ruminate over whether our feelings are right or wrong but to recognize them as temporary and part of our larger whole.