by Philip Price
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf & Ellen Burstyn
Runtime: 2 hours & 6 minutes
How do you deal with a loss that your body constantly reminds you was supposed to be a blessing? How does one do, concentrate, or consider anything else besides what they should have been doing in the weeks and months following? How does everything not simply feel like a waste of time? From the car you just bought to the child-like mannequins in the store windows to the room in your house that was meant to be theirs. The simple sight of a young girl signaling Martha’s (Vanessa Kirby) body to begin producing milk. It’s cruel, it’s unimaginable, and it’s made even worse when your most pressing questions have no satisfactory explanations. Even if they did though, they wouldn’t ease the pain or heal the hurt.
In Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman” the show-stopper is the opening, prologue-like birth sequence that contains all the anxiety, excitement and physicality of an actual birth; never letting the air out of the room for an unbroken 23 minute shot that builds to a moment of blissful promise and then immediate pain. It is in the aftermath of this tragedy that Mundruczó’s film with a screenplay by Kata Wéber focuses the rest of its energy. Martha doesn’t express her grief outwardly. The self-blame, the shame, the guilt, and the aforementioned grief is all happening internally making Kirby’s performance that much more impressive. We don’t like to talk about death in general, never mind the death of a child, but this is mostly in fear of stirring up emotions those who’ve experienced such loss would rather not be reminded of in the moment. The issue goes deeper than simply talking about it though, as Martha’s not even sure she herself knows how to express such grief in the first place; society doesn’t know how to deal with such a tragedy, so how does she? This is naturally a rather isolating feeling, to suddenly lose this person you’ve been creating over the past nine months and both Wéber’s screenplay and Kirby’s performance genuinely capture the confusion and the helplessness of it all. Speaking of helpless, Shia LaBeouf is equally as impressive in an arc that is heartbreaking in its own right.
The film begins on the fateful day of September 17th and moves spontaneously to different days over the course of the following months as a legal case is mounted against the midwife (Molly Parker) present on the night of the birth. This plotting is largely put in place due to LaBeouf’s Sean and Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), craving some kind of justice which introduces the family lawyer into the mix as played by Sarah Snook. It’s terrible to watch something so intangible and innocent as the love for a child be processed and formalized through something as structured and cold as the court system, but Mundruczó’s flawless eye and specific aesthetic paired with Howard Shore’s lovely yet restrained score make the difficulties in the minutia of the narrative easier to consider. As Martha drifts in the opposite direction in terms of managing her pain she and the remainder of her family find themselves at odds with one another about the path being taken. What’s even more difficult to understand is how people can and why they try to force how they believe others should deal with traumas they haven’t experienced in the way they believe is appropriate. It’s evident in Burstyn’s dramatic monologue (which she will undoubtedly win awards for) she only wants what is best for her daughter and to see her daughter come out of this life-altering event with as few scars as possible, but the fact of the matter is that this is a life-altering event and Elizabeth seems unable to accept the fact she couldn’t shield her daughter from such pain.
I understand movies such as this are made not only to reaffirm those that have experienced such tragedy and trauma that they are not alone as well as to be able to work through something incredibly personal. Everyone has to find their own truth and own way of dealing with loss and it’s rather courageous to seek this path instead of trying to square away your grief into a category. It’s a lone journey, but an ensemble loss and the film enlightens the viewer to these multiple perspectives and not only these different reactions to this same experience, but how it impacts these different people in completely different ways.
"Pieces of a Woman" will begin streaming on Netflix on January 7.