Pieces of a Woman movie review: Vanessa Kirby stuns as a mother shattered by grief in this mournful melodrama

Pieces of a Woman movie review: Vanessa Kirby stuns as a mother shattered by grief in this mournful melodrama

Pieces of a Woman movie review: Vanessa Kirby stuns as a mother shattered by grief in this mournful melodrama

Cinema is the truth that unfolds between "action" and "cut." When Godard described it as "truth, 24 frames per second," he called the cut a "lie." By that measure, cinema is at its purest and truest in a long take. The joy and pain of childbirth unfold across 23 minutes of unvarnished truth in Pieces of a Woman. Kornél Mundruczó opens his film with a one-take prologue, which follows a home birth in real time. We watch Martha (Vanessa Kirby) go into labour, her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) comfort her with dad jokes, and the last-minute replacement mid-wife Eve (Molly Parker) reassure her she's in good hands. Between the pushing and writhing, bellows and belches, the uninterrupted shot stretches time while shrinking the distance between the audience and the actors. 

Still from the prologue | (L to R) Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha

In this unshakeable continuity of time, we are transported into the setting, immersed into the breadths of the couple's Boston home. Trapped inside with them, it's claustrophobic. Mundruczó builds an intensity through staging: the camera tightens on Martha's clenched fist, Sean's anguished gaze and Eve's growing dread. Martha's pain makes way for joy as she hears her baby's first cry. We are lulled into a sense of weightless bliss as we celebrate her motherhood with her. Then, joy makes way for pain again. The baby stops breathing. In the ensuing horror of two parents living their worst nightmare, we want to leave, but the one-take won't let us. We hold our breath, waiting for the paramedics and the first cut to arrive.

Once it does, the film struggles to rise to the level of the prologue's artistry or generate the same emotional depth. The rest of the film diagrams the disintegration of a marriage in the aftermath of the tragedy. Grief is an unmapped terrain that Martha and Sean must learn to navigate their own way. As they try to move on without forgetting their pain, they drift into different paths, gradually straining their marriage to breaking point. Martha becomes detached, much to the dismay of Sean. Her inward repression and his outward aggression come into conflict in a scene, where he coerces her into having sex. Her disinterest causes his frustration to turn violent. Sean, a recovering alcoholic, falls back into old habits in no time. LaBeouf plays a character which has come to define his work and life itself: an unstable agent of aggression, ready to explode anytime.

Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby

Kirby plays a woman who internalises all her pain. Martha goes back to work, thinking she can move on. Only, her body won't let her forget. It is a constant reminder of a failed promise, a promise of maternal fulfilment carried and nurtured for nine months. When the child dies, the once-certainties gradually crumble in the emptiness left by loss. The emotional abyss becomes a prison of hopelessness. This spiritual emptiness is configured in Martha's everyday life, where the all-consuming grief inhabits everywhere she goes and fouls the air she breathes.

Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth

Martha's grief trajectory is on a different wavelength to not only Sean's but also that of her overbearing mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). When Martha donates her daughter's body for scientific study, Elizabeth admonishes her. Instead, she wants Martha to take an active interest in her mission to get Eve convicted for criminal negligence. The tension between mother and daughter reaches a boiling point at a family lunch. In another one-take sequence, what starts with a casual conversation about The White Stripes ends with Elizabeth delivering a fiery monologue about how she moved on from her own tragedy and her daughter must too.

The film is most rewarding when Kirby is the emotional centre of gravity. She substantiates the perspective of a mother struggling to accept and endure an unimaginable loss in silence. It is Kirby's solo, full of quiet suffering, which gives the forms and keys to the more well-tuned movements of Mundruczó’s sonata. Her withholding becomes an asset, her blank face the key battleground of emotions. The most heart-breaking moments play out through her despairing eyes. By contrast, the film is not as rewarding when the POV switches to Sean's. It is even less rewarding when it diverts its attention to Eve's trial, its tabloid-y theatrics and its sappy resolution. Even Kirby and Burstyn's heavy-lifting can't mask these shortcomings.

Pieces of a Woman is also a little too on-the-nose with its metaphors. Sean is a construction worker who builds bridges, but he can't bridge the widening gulf between him and his wife. Apples and seeds feature heavily to signify Martha's rebirth. If Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber bring a sense of authenticity and truthfulness to the process of childbirth in the prologue, they struggle to replicate it in their depiction of a mother trying to free herself from grief. Far too often, they get distracted by peripheral drama. If they had just stuck with Kirby from the first frame to the last, the film could have been a far more memorable meditation on mourning. Like the suggestion in its title, it should have only been about a woman shattered by loss, and trying to pick up the pieces to become whole again.

Rating: ***/5

Pieces of a Woman is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here –