Pieces of a Woman (Canada/Hungary/USA, 2020)

December 29, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Pieces of a Woman Poster

The filmmakers responsible for Pieces of a Woman tout its honest, life-affirming qualities. While no one would debate the former, it’s necessary to come through the narrative’s gauntlet to achieve the latter. This is an emotionally wrenching look at the impact the loss of a newborn can have not only on the parents but on their relationship. I have heard it said that even the strongest marriage may not survive the death of a child; Pieces of a Woman offers an autopsy of the process of disintegration. The movie isn’t for those who crave light, uplifting entertainment. Instead, it’s for those who want a precise, visceral experience from a motion picture.

Following some introductory material that provides background for the main characters and their situations, the movie segues into a single-take, 30-minute account of a difficult childbirth. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), have opted to avoid the cold, clinical hospital setting to welcome the arrival of their baby girl. Selecting a home delivery, they have arranged for a midwife to be on-hand to help with the birth. When the time comes, however, the woman of their choosing is unavailable, so she sends a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker). Initially, things seem to be going well but, when the baby’s heartbeat is weaker than expected following a contraction, Eva determines that the delivery has to be expedited. She also tells Sean to call 911. All is for naught, however. Although the baby initially appears to be healthy, she dies shortly after birth, leaving Martha and Sean to cope with the loss of both a child and all the hopes and dreams associated with her.

The film is divided into three sections. The first covers the baby’s birth. The second focuses on the dissolution of Martha and Sean’s marriage. The third chronicles the trial of the midwife and explores Martha’s path forward. If Kata Weber’s screenplay has a flaw, it’s that the trial feels too much like a contrived Hollywood courtroom melodrama, thereby undercutting the powerful sense of realism that defines the film’s other 100 minutes. It’s as if, having delved deep into darkness, director Kornel Mundruczo wanted to provide something lighter and more hopeful. What better way that to give a heartfelt speech to a packed courtroom? That sort of thing can work but its incorporation in this movie feels jarring.

The first half-hour is as good in its own way as the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. The comparison may seem odd but there’s the same level of you-are-there intensity and, after it’s over, the film never quite rises to that level again. Once the contractions start about five minutes into the film, Mundruczo keeps the cameras rolling, entombing the viewers with the characters in the moment. Unlike in 1917, where director Sam Mendes used camera tricks to fool the viewer into believing the entire film was a one-shot deal, it’s the real thing in Pieces of a Woman (at least for those crucial 25 minutes). The performances of Molly Parker, Shia LaBeouf, and especially Vanessa Kirby are put under the microscope and they never come up wanting. Kirby may not win an Oscar for this role – politics will play a bigger role than ever in this year’s selection – but she can legitimately claim robbery if she’s not at least nominated. LaBeouf (off-screen issues aside) again proves that he’s at his best when staying far away from Hollywood productions. Ellen Burstyn, whose notable scenes come in the middle section of the film, has a small-but-important role as Elizabeth, Martha’s mother, a once-domineering woman who is diminished as a result of dementia.

The loss of the baby is presented in such a visceral fashion that the film’s second act, although suffused by the poignance of a once-loving couple whose connection is severed by their grief, can feel muted. The erection of a bridge across Boston’s Charles River provides a too-obvious metaphor for the path Martha builds to her future – starting with a gaping chasm and gradually becoming a solid path to a better tomorrow.

Pieces of a Woman is the kind of film one watches to have an emotional experience. Parts are hopeful; others are devastating. It seeks not to manipulate but to present the story – one that is probably more common than many might believe – in such a way that the viewer is drawn into an intimate bond with the characters. There are no villains. People, torn by grief and bitterness, sometimes act in unkind ways but the filmmakers are careful not to judge them. The performances are raw and unforgettable. Pieces of a Woman isn’t flawless but it leaves a lasting impression. It’s one of the best films of the year, although it’s not for those seeking escapism and its signature sequence may be too upsetting for some viewers (especially those who have experienced something similar in real life) to endure. Still, far better for a movie to compel a strong reaction than to offer the comfort of a bland emotional response.

Pieces of a Woman (Canada/Hungary/USA, 2020)

Director: Kornel Mundruczo
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook
Screenplay: Kata Weber
Cinematography: Benjamin Loeb
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1