Spoilers for Pieces of a Woman below.
The main reason I decided to watch Pieces of a Woman was because it stars Vanessa Kirby. I’m a fan of hers from movies like About Time, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Hobbs and Shaw. When I saw that she was going to be starring in a full on drama, I was excited to see what she could bring. But I wasn’t prepared to be absolutely blown away.
The film follows Martha (Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) after the life-altering tragedy of losing their firstborn daughter during a home birth. When their midwife is unable to make it to the delivery, a backup is sent, which seemingly results in the death of the baby.
In an astounding 30-minute opening sequence in which Martha’s water breaks and she then gives birth in a single unbroken shot, director Kornél Mundruczó compels you to experience such a wide range of emotion. These 30 minutes are an astonishing mix of moving and heartbreaking. I felt like I needed to pause the movie and take a short walk after it finished just to process what I had just watched.
I didn’t anticipate the outcome of the birth, so the entire sequence floored me for more reasons than just its technical achievement. The unbroken shot functions as so much more than a gimmick here – it’s the whole reason the sequence is so effective. It wholly fulfills its purpose by dragging you into the setting and letting you feel the excitement, pain, worry, jubilation, and devastation of the couple throughout the entire process.
But the most outstanding part of the sequence, even with its technical wizardry, is Kirby’s performance. If Anne Hathaway was able to win an Oscar for just 15 minutes of screen time in Les Miz in which she sings one song, then Vanessa Kirby absolutely should win the Oscar for the opening 30 minutes alone, plus what she is able to do the rest of the way through the movie. Because yes, the movie keeps going after the jaw-dropping opening.
The final 90 minutes of the film tackle the way this tragedy affects Martha, Sean, and those around them. Of course, when you open your movie in perhaps the best way possible, the rest of the film is almost bound to take a step or two down. In the case of Pieces of a Woman, it’s almost as if it is two separate movies in terms of how different it feels.
Between the the first and second act, the tone feels drastically different. You’re pulled in and just lose your sense of time with the beginning, and then, smack, you’re in the following weeks and months in which Martha has to cope with the most emotionally affecting moment of her lifetime. In one sense, it feels meandering, but in another, it feels perfectly fitting.
We see each month following the September birth pass with the on-the-nose visual metaphor of a bridge being built over the Charles River in Boston. But the metaphor being so spot on doesn’t take away from its meaningfulness. It begins with the two sides far apart, and gradually, each month they get closer together, just as Martha does with those around her.
Martha begins the second act of the film detached and seemingly-numb from what has happened. It doesn’t seem like she’s given herself any time to process the event. Her fight or flight instinct has told her to keep going with her life, while Sean and her mother (Ellen Burstyn) want her to take legal action against the midwife.
But slowly, just like the bridge, things start to come together for Martha. Apples, the film’s other prevalent motif, are introduced as well. Martha regularly has one with her and even begins to propagate some apple seeds in her refrigerator. Most notably, when speaking as a witness at the midwife’s criminal trial, Martha says her baby smelled like apples in the brief amount of time she was able to hold her.
And this is when I was moved to tears for the second time in the film. The lawyer had asked her what it felt like to hold her daughter and it’s obvious that this is Martha’s first time even considering that question. Up to that point she had spent all her time forcing herself to move on without ever confronting what she was moving on from. And the movie is effective in having the audience do this as well. At this point I had almost forgotten the devastating feeling of knowing the baby had died, but the simple question brought it all back. Then, during the court’s recess, Martha looks at the few pictures that Sean had taken of her and the baby in the baby’s few moments of life and she finally truly breaks down with emotion.
I loved the way the movie was able to effectively bring back all of the emotion that had been forgotten. It made me think introspectively about loss, grieving, moving on, and reconciliation. And just after Martha comes to terms with what has happened, the construction on the bridge over the river is finally completed.
She has the moment of reconciliation with her mother, who had been pushing for prosecution. They were able to understand that compensation won’t bring the baby back because that isn’t the point at all. Rather, continuing on with life and bringing positivity is what needs to be done. And though Sean leaves Martha due to their falling out of love because of everything that has gone on along with Sean’s relapse into drug and alcohol abuse, Martha is still able to acknowledge the role he played in her life. (It’s also worth briefly mentioning the role of LaBeouf in this movie – he plays a character who is close to the real life allegations against LaBeouf himself. It can be quite difficult and disturbing to watch, knowing what he has admitted to.)
The film’s ending brings everything together quite effectively. Martha finds her apple seeds are finally beginning to sprout and she realizes that she can indeed sustain life. She goes to the now completed bridge where she spread’s the baby’s ashes into the running river. Then, sometime in the future, we see a young girl (who we learn is Martha’s daughter) climbing an apple tree before Martha comes out to her to display the fruits of moving on with life.
Pieces of a Woman could have been a sociopolitical piece about the risks of home births, which would have perhaps been warranted in the right hands, but I’m glad it instead leans into the emotional aspects of moving on in life and dealing with grief. The film may not entirely stand up on a filmmaking or storytelling level, but I’m not worried about that. It made me think and feel deeply, which is about all I look for in a movie.