I’m sitting here, having finished viewing Kornél Mundruzcó’s ensemble movie Pieces of a Woman, numb as though I’d been splattered with ice-cold water and left outside to marinate in the unforgiving winter temperatures. That was my reaction to having viewed this movie, a picture that I kept putting off precisely because of the topic of a marriage imploding under the black light of a horrific tragedy and no one around to truly save them.
Nothing can prepare an expecting woman and her husband for the loss of a child. There may be therapists at the ready, and well-meaning people, but it’s simply too much pain to process correctly. And is there a “correct” way to even go by this? Vanessa Kirby’s Martha doesn’t know and doesn’t want anyone’s pity. After giving birth to a baby girl who dies soon after going into cardiac arrest, she moves from being what at first seemed to be a rather “in the moment” person to a hard, cold individual who lashes out and never bothers to care where the whip lands.
However, Martha’s family is all around, tip-toeing around her, trying to “be there” for her. Most insidious, for lack of a better world, is Elizabeth (a commanding, imperial Ellen Burstyn) who is aggressively pushing for a lawsuit against the midwife. You see, Martha and her husband Sean (Shia LeBeouf, for once acting and not posturing) were going for home-induced labor. They had their midwife at the ready. When the midwife called out, she sent her replacement Eva (Molly Parker), who arrived with all the bells and whistles of someone who knows her trade. Complications arose during the delivery, and it was never clear if Eva was to blame. Either/or, the result is a dead infant, and a marriage reeling in unimaginable pain.
Mundruzcó’s movie barrels ahead, giving us chapters in which we get to see a couple coming apart at the seams because they can’t move forward (though they do make an attempt of sorts). Every time Sean reaches out, Martha remains aloof and cold. It’s not a shock to see where the movie will go with this divide between husband and wife, but what is a revelation is Kirby’s performance. A walking wound, open and bleeding, she moves about, sometimes cagey, sometimes afraid of her own self, and increasingly angry at the way the cards were delivered to her. Sean has moments of anguish, but instead of letting the camera capture them he prefers to hide them. This may not be the actor’s fault, however. In not letting us completely into his own emotional state and then letting him behave in a less than loyal manner to Martha, we understand that perhaps this is too much for him to handle and whatever he may have had with Martha is over.
Pieces of a Woman is a very theatrical film that mostly takes place indoors, be it at Martha’s and Sean’s house or Elizabeth’s own residence. While family gatherings should be warm, here they get portrayed as battlegrounds for characters to continue to hurt one another. On one end there is Burstyn, who asserts her own self in a smothering manner as the movie progresses. On the other, and at the center, is Kirby, her hair never truly combed, obsessively grabbing apples and keeping the seeds, staring daggers, her at times growling voice choking on the rage she must feel. It is quite the performance that grounds a movie that is devastating to watch from the moment the title card appears until its final resolution.