“Pieces of a Woman” Movie Review


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     In the opening sequence of director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Pieces of a Woman”, what should have been a special moment quickly devolves into an unthinkable tragedy.  A young couple, who have chosen to have their child delivered by a mid wife, experience the elation of seeing their new born for the first time, only to helplessly watch as the baby dies minutes later.  It’s one of those cinematically gut wrenching scenes that bring forth a strong indication of what’s to come.  None of which will be positive.

     Working from a script with his frequent collaborator, Kata Weber, Mundruczo presents this opening scene utilizing the now common technique of creating the illusion of one take, as his camera follows Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) during the late stages of labor and the decision to call their mid wife.  Even the news the person they had been working with during the entire pregnancy is currently unavailable doesn’t change the fact the baby is coming and the replacement, a well mannered and extremely empathetic Eva (Molly Parker), appears ready to fill in and provide the kind of care and professionalism one would expect.  

     But something seems off.  While an initial portable ultrasound indicates the baby’s heartbeat is normal, later readings indicate to Eva the baby may be in distress.  At the height of the actual delivery where she has Martha move into different birthing positions, Eva tells Sean to call an ambulance when it becomes clear emergency care may become necessary.  Tension continues to build, but both Martha and Sean stay focused.  The concern on Eva’s face becomes evident as she implores Martha to push.  Almost suddenly, the baby is born.  The familiar cry is heard, bringing an instant calm to a situation we are meant to believe was heading in the wrong direction.  Martha holds the newest member of their family as Sean, obviously relieved, looks over her shoulder, as the two share the kind of emotion that can only happen when two parents see their new born for the first time.

     Sadly, this positive moment quickly becomes a nightmarish scenario when Eva alerts Martha that the baby is turning blue.  The worst possible outcome has now happened as the screen goes to black and we are presented with the film’s title some thirty minutes into it.  What ensues for the rest of the film melds together aspects of two recent Oscar hopefuls, “Marriage Story” (2019) and “Manchester by the Sea” (2016).  Stories which explored the terrible grief experienced after the kind of traumatic events in our lives that tend to not only change us, but completely reshape who we are.

     As Martha, Kirby allows us to examine the inner depths of her soul.  This is more an exercise in acting out the emotions involved after experiencing such a tragedy than it is an actual story.  Weber’s script calls for scenes that are spread apart over a period of about a year after Martha and Sean lose their child, looking in during various happenings that clearly will have an impact later.  There’s Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who looks to take advantage of the situation by driving a wedge between her daughter and Sean of whom we learn she never really approved of in a classic “no one will ever be good enough for my daughter” thought process.  She also appears intent on utilizing her niece, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), who happens to be a local prosecutor, as a pathway to ensure Eva is charged and convicted for her negligent actions as the couple’s mid wife

     In watching all of this unfold, there is a feeling that no family, regardless of their strength and unity, could possibly survive this kind of loss.  You naturally feel for all involved, particularly for Martha as she struggles in returning to some sense of normalcy.  A task not helped by her rubbernecking co-workers or her medaling mother.  As for Sean, he seems caught in the middle, while now coping with a relationship devoid of any kind of intimacy or communication with the woman he loves.  One of the characters eventually tells them “time heals all wounds”, but with the people in play here, one would have to seriously doubt this will be the case.  And with Sean’s long time sobriety now in question, yet another obstacle has appeared in this family’s quest to heal.

     It’s amazing how much LaBeouf has matured over the years, allowing him to now play these types of roles and do so at a level that has to be considered awards worthy.  In a film about losing a child, it’s easy for the focus to remain on the mother and “Pieces of a Woman” is no exception.  But along with Martha’s journey toward some semblance of coping, we also feel Sean’s frustration as a man who believed his life was finally heading in a positive direction after what we presume was a turmoil filled younger life.  He longs for acceptance, and knows Martha’s mother believes her daughter is entitled to someone more on her financial level.  It’s tough situation to be in and LaBeouf deserves a nod for ensuring the character remains relevant throughout when the majority of scenes are meant to explore Martha’s feelings as the people around her cave to other interests.

     Expect many accoclades for the performances by Kirby, LaBeouf, and Burstyn, who practically steals every scene she is in, toeing the line between supportive mother and overbearing matriarch.  All while the story excels in providing a poignant and important look into the mind of a mother whose excruciating loss leads to an unavoidable downward spiral where recovery can only be achieved one day at a time.  GRADE: B+