Pieces Of A Woman Review: Vanessa Kirby Elevates This Incomplete Yet Crucial Story About Postpartum Grief
This past year, we’ve collectively learnt a lot about loss and grief. Suddenly, posting an appropriate expression of your grief on your social media has become as important as a burial or cremation ritual. It’s no longer about mourning but mourning right, in accordance or in sync with how society mourns. If you move on too soon, there’s guilt. If you hold on for too long, you’re seeking attention. Amidst all these… ‘rules’… lands director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber’s Pieces Of A Woman, starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, and Ellen Burstyn. It’s a very simple, straightforward, at times a little incomplete film about postpartum loss and grief, with two very incredible scenes, and Vanessa Kirby’s performance in them, stealing the show.
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Plot: Pieces of A Woman is literally a woman picking up the pieces of her life after a loss
Martha and Sean are expecting a baby girl. She works a humdrum corporate job which we don’t know much about. But we do know that Sean works in construction, and probably doesn’t earn as much, at least not enough to keep his mother-in-law happy because she’s always trying to pay for everything. The couple have just returned home from getting their brand new used car (paid by Martha’s mom), when Martha’s contractions begin. She’s opted for a home birth, and soon enough a midwife, Eva, arrives to help her with the delivery.
When the homebirth ends in a very unexpected tragedy, there’s lots of grief to go around and accusations to be made, some even legal. As Martha grapples with the grief of losing a child, she must also navigate her fractioning relationship with Sean and find a way to deal with her domineering mother and the society which expects her to behave a certain way in her grief.
We need to talk about THAT childbirth scene
Childbirth is supposed to be one of the most beautiful things to witness. But to experience it? Naww hell, it scares me! I sometimes wonder how do women, knowing there’s so much pain involved in the process, even sign up for having children! Usually, childbirth on the screen can either be extremely sanitised or real gory and dramatic. In Pieces Of A Woman, though, it felt, to me, bizarrely soothing and at the same time made me hold my stomach and feel Martha’s pain somehow.
The scene is roughly 25 minutes long, and a single take. Why is this information important? I’d like to think that apart from making us experience, second hand, the full gamut of emotions a woman goes through during labour, this untouched scene serves to turn us, the audience, in to jury. You know, for when the case against the midwife goes into trial. The camera follows all three characters—Martha, Sean and Eva the midwife, so when one of them leaves the room, it goes along, giving as a complete perspective into what’s happening. The angles particularly feel like we’re bystanders, part of this intimate family moment, looking into their lives.
What Vanessa Kirby does here is masterful. And I love how they’ve managed to make it as real, and as non-filmy as possible. So there’s drama, but there’s no DRAMA. Very plausible things are happening in this scene. There’s that discomfort, the confusion, the little moments of anger at the characters when Sean forgets where his phone is (it actually happened with Shia in the shoot) or when Eva does not tell the couple that their child could be born in distress. A pregnant woman burps, squelches, rolls over, is unreasonable, and despite being on the verge of pushing a little human out of her vagina, is able to walk on her two feet. And it is all very real and show in this scene, with the camera not leaving so you don’t miss a moment of it.
It feels like a crescendo of emotions and the duration of the scene should serve as a reminder that actually, labour is much longer, and much worse sometimes. If Vanessa Kirby is the crowning jewel of the film, this scene is those little jewels around it that make it look better.
Pieces Of A Woman feels personal, intimate and rooted in real experiences of grief and loss
Everybody wants to tell women what to do with their bodies, how to feel about a miscarriage or an abortion. In the film, we see everyone, from Sean to Martha’s mother to her mother’s friend, reacting strongly to the tragedy. And the believe that if Martha doesn’t do so too, she’ll never be able to move on from it. Ironically, all Martha wants to do is grieve in her own way and heal.
You see how she has instantly begun her healing process—she’s back at work, she’s dressing in her usual clothes that are a mix of deep red coats with a nude palette of knits. She’s wearing plum red lipstick. All little ways of getting shreds of normalcy back into her life so she can heal. But the people around her don’t let her. Whether it is by forcing her to file a lawsuit against the midwife for negligence or telling her what she can and cannot do with the body of her now deceased daughter…. They don’t understand that maybe the loss is so green, so raw for her that if she lets it out, to try and conform to their standards of overt grieving, she’ll probably not be able to pick up those broken pieces of herself again.
The loss also exposes the preexisting chinks in Sean and Martha’s relationship (possibly due to his sobriety issues and the status clashes that always threatened it). Sean has a more physical and aggressive need to express his grief. Often, the only way men can ‘not deal’ with their emotions is sex. They lash out through it as well. And once again, women have to pander to their emotions, even when their hurt and pain is greater. Sean isn’t willing to give her grief a priority, or adjust himself as per her, which is a toxic trait for sure but also his way of handling his pain.
Martha tries hard to match step, to let him in, but she cannot handle the intensity of it all. It reminded me of how grief can be of two types—one you want to share with the world to reduce your pain, and one you want to go through in solitary, because you know they couldn’t handle it.
Pieces Of A Woman has been inspired from a personal tragedy experienced by director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, who are a married couple. In addition to borrowing from their own story, Wéber has also referenced a real-life trial involving a midwife. But instead of focusing on the legal aspects of the case, the film stays with Martha and how she processes the loss of a child that she didn’t anticipate as a possibility. And to ensure they got the emotion right, the couple spoke to real women who had lost children so, and gone through postpartum grief.
Pieces of A Woman pays close attention to details, embedding simple allegories wherever possible.
The film embeds the littlest details which lend it a certain realness, like Martha being conscious about her naked body even during her labour, or the very physical nature of Martha and Sean’s relationship, which falters when it has nothing to hold on to. A few months after, we see that Martha is still wearing postpartum diapers or that her breast is leaking, all things that happen actually with women who’ve gone through this but we rarely see it depicted on screen or talked about.
The writing is also full of allegories. There’s Sean talking about bridges so passionately, but not being able to find a ‘resonance’ with Martha post the death of their child. The passage of time is shown through shots of a river’s changing form. It’s frozen over at first, and starts developing these cracks, which makes for a stunning sight but one that reflects the relationships in the film, I’d like to think. When a year later, we see it, the water is free flowing, perhaps indicating a sort of peace and healing that Martha finds from letting Sean go, repairing her relationship with her mother and practicing forgiveness.
Martha’s weirdly obsessed with apples in the movie. And you think it’s just one of those things to give the character some minor trait. From what I understand, the apple seed sprouting works as a nice symbolism for Martha to prove that she can get procreation right. It’s seems to be a food that she craved during her pregnancy. Even her daughter smelt like apples to her. So maybe she wanted to grow them in her memory. But the final scene in the film, when we see her daughter sit on a fully grown, laden apple tree, we understand the most crucial lesson the film is trying to impart. The death of a child is not the end of the world. It doesn’t have to be this singular destructive moment in a woman’s life. She can birth an orchard again, that bears even more beautiful fruit than before.
Pieces Of A Women feels like it is missing some very crucial pieces
While it gets most of its components right, I still think Pieces Of A Woman is a little fragmented in what it is trying to do. And left a lot of loose ends. Particularly when it brings in the lawsuit angle. Because it’s dealt with in what I felt was a very rushed way, without truly exploiting what it could’ve been. We get barely one courtroom scene; and it feels like it was just a checkbox that needed to be ticked. I love that Martha’s testimony was simple and direct, not too melodramatic and heavy. But it still felt a little incomplete. What might’ve been better was to avoid that altogether and focused just on the emotional journey of Martha.
Vanessa Kirby is the undisputed hero of this story
When the abuse allegations and lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf by F.K.A Twigs emerged, there was naturally some apprehensions about watching this film. It doesn’t help that the sex scene between Sean and Martha is borderline use of aggression. But I won’t take away from the rest of the film, because my sole motivation to watch it was Vanessa Kirby. If you’ve seen her as Princess Margaret on The Crown, you’ll know why I have such faith.
Oh my god, this woman! I’ve already waxed on and on about the childbirth scene being an incredible watch, but Vanessa Kirby deserves so much praise for her performance in it. There are two more scenes—the abovementioned sex scene between Martha and Sean and a dinner scene with the entire family where we slowly see Martha unravel—that also form a part of the film’s centrepieces. You see her face working in those scenes and it blows your mind. This film, which has Martin Scorsese for an executive producer, is already prepping its awards campaign, and Kirby is definitely a solid contender this season.
Verdict: Albeit incomplete, Pieces Of A Women is essential watch for the world we live in
Pregnancy and childbirth are scary. There are a million things that can go wrong. Who do we blame for it? The mother for being careless? The doctor? But even they can’t help it sometimes. We cannot even begin to imagine the guilt a woman feels on the loss of a child, the ‘What ifs’ running through her mind. Add to that people around her constantly telling her what she should do and how she should process her grief? Uh uh, no thank you.
Pieces of A Woman has a simple message: Losing a child can be devastating for a woman, but it doesn’t have to define her. In fact, grieving is essential, but loss never needs to define a person. In our world right now that increasingly puts emphasis on the ‘showcase’ of it all, and trolls women for not grieving a loved one’s passing properly, this film has an elevated relevance. Remember how we judged Chrissy Teigen’s post about losing her baby boy? Remember how we trolled Bollywood actresses for moving on? Yeah, we gotta stop and just let them be.
Pieces Of A Woman is streaming on Netflix.