Shia LaBeouf has been removed from Netflix’s promotions of this film after his former partner FKA Twigs sued him for sexual battery, assault, and emotional distress.
Depicting miscarriage and stillbirth on screen has long been a difficult and sensitive topic. There is no easy way to portray the death of a baby, which is probably why Kornél Mundruczó didn’t try to present it as such. Pieces of a Woman, Mundruczó’s eighth feature film, follows couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) as they lose their new-born daughter and try to maintain the semblance of a life afterwards.
The film’s key scene is a near half-hour long-take masterpiece set in a home in Boston in which the camera almost stalks the couple and their midwife during their homebirth. Close-ups expose vulnerabilities, building the tension of the scene until the inevitable crescendo. I almost forgot it was a film because the labour scene was so naturalistic – this was undoubtedly aided by Kirby’s incredible yet realistic performance. She belches and swears her way through early labour then morphs into a primal, desperate woman. In the aftermath, she is hauntingly cold and restrained, with the occasional outburst during which we get a glimpse at Martha’s weaker side once more, until she shuts us off again.
Shia LaBeouf stars as the rough and ready Sean, who struggles with Martha’s mother’s disdain for him and his background. Far more outwardly emotional than his partner, Sean also serves to represent the huge moral complexities of grief. At times we deeply dislike him, and at others he appears as what he is at his base – a man who was desperate to be a father and who now feels that he is nothing. His grief, poignantly portrayed by LaBeouf, is played out almost in real time across the film.
Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Martha’s mother Elizabeth is another key element of the film’s power – she is at once brutal and vulnerable. In one scene, she monologues a deeply affecting speech that manages to display both of these qualities perfectly, as Martha stands by in awe. Her character goes through an intricate and fascinating arc across the film’s runtime, with her final few scenes really serving to show the minutiae of her complex personality.
The film utilises two central metaphors – an apple pip and a bridge being built by the construction firm Sean works for. Both come to represent the growth of the central characters, and crucially, a glimmer of hope. As Sean and Martha’s relationship and lives change dramatically, these two images serve as steady indicators that the world is still turning and there are still chances for progress, both emotional and physical. The final scenes coupled together tie up these metaphors masterfully, leaving the viewer with a deep sense of resolution despite an arguable lack of it.
The script was written by Mundruczó’s partner, Kata Wéber, based on a previous play which in turn was based on the couple’s own experience with infant loss, as well as the real-life trial of a Hungarian midwife. The real elements of the story, as well as the experimental and improvisational atmosphere fostered on the set, make it feel all the more real and therefore all the more haunting.
Pieces of a Woman spans a (presumably deliberate) period of nine months, while maintaining a quiet kind of intimacy. With deeply affecting lead performances and powerful moments, it’s sure to live in my memory for a while yet.
– Caitlin Barr
Featured Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube