Review: Unforgettable 'Pieces of a Woman' will destroy you
Courtesy of Netflix
Kornél Mundruczó‘s devastating “Pieces of a Woman'' opens with an extended, unforgettable 30 minute one-shot sequence where Vanessa Kirby’s Martha is going through childbirth. Without any visible cuts or, frankly, room to breathe, the audience goes on this journey as if they’re the ones in labor. It’s a tactic used in “Children of Men,” Birdman,” and most recently “1917” but those didn’t have quite the same impact, especially when you know where “Pieces of a Woman'' is headed. Kirby - who until now was seen as a dispensable action sidekick in “Hobbs & Shaw'' and “Mission: Impossible'' - gives a career defining performance alongside 88-year old veteran Ellen Burstyn - playing Martha’s overbearing mother - who might become the oldest Oscar winner/nominee in history.
The film deals with an array of issues, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Martha’s baby, minutes after she’s born, dies in her arms. Coming from a place of sensitivity, the filmmakers understand the load being carried and don’t shy away from the specific details which are devastating, but necessary to Martha’s recovery. Writer (and partner to Mundruczó) Kata Wéber makes the audience feel the impact and Kirby is phenomenal at conveying the cycle. We see Martha crawl into a shell days after the death, weaving through family sympathizers, her body still lactating, and a husband (Shia LaBeouf who, given recent events, sours the experience) struggling to understand trauma.
It’s unimaginable losing a newborn, and “Pieces of a Woman” is an excellent study in how that life-altering event can change everyone around you. When Martha returns to work, a fraction of what her old self, co-workers stay silent and mind their business while her mother tries to demonstrate empathy but instead comes across narcissistic. Everyone expects Martha to act and process her bereavement in a certain manner with loved ones taking her distance as a personal vendetta. Where in reality, she’s still processing. Put yourself in her shoes.
Though most of the film is a powerful metaphor for women reclaiming their identity, and Bustyn gives a stunning (“raise your head”) speech sure to live in the pathos of excellent cinema (and the clip shown to all award voters), “Pieces of a Woman” stumbles with a secondary subplot about Martha’s midwife standing trial for murdering her newborn; A side quest that feels disconnected from the picture, and overshadows core messaging. While this inclusion doesn’t hinder Kirby’s sensational performance and the overall impact of the film, it never meshed with me on a personal level.
The film isn’t easy to stomach, and has triggering elements but “Pieces of a Woman” is a perfect showcase for Kirby where after watching the first 30 minutes, it’s hard to envision another actress as this character; and the insane amount of legwork she brings to Martha helps shape the story into a beautiful arc of redemption. It may be called “Pieces of a Woman,” but this narrative tells a whole and grounded story.
PIECES OF A WOMAN debuts on Netflix Thursday, January 7th 2021