Grieving the loss of a child is a deep, specific, and enigmatic kind of pain. It’s nearly impossible to communicate to those who haven’t experienced it and subsequently arouses intense loneliness in its victim. Pieces of a Woman explores the sensation of grieving a child; raw, lethargic, and at times confusing. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) knows that this story does not have room for melodrama – only the truths that people often shy away from.
Mundruczó’s English-language debut, is, first and foremost, a film about the jarring displacement of grief. At the beginning of the film, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean (Shia LeBeouf), are expecting their first child. Only one short scene takes place before Martha goes into labor. Intent on a home birth, the couple call their midwife. But she is in the middle of another labor, so she sends Eve (Molly Parker), instead. For twenty-four minutes (in a single take), the film unflinchingly shows Martha’s painful and precarious birth, which ends in bliss – and then heartbreak. After her first gasps of air, the baby turns blue.
The remainder of the film follows Martha and Sean traversing a new, foreign world of grief. And, what should be a film that shows Martha being supported by the world, is really a film that shows Martha against the world. Along with Sean, Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), and Martha’s sister, Anita (Iliza Shlesinger), are obsessed with telling the grieving mother exactly how she should be grieving.
In one of the first scenes after Martha’s tragic home birth, she visits the supermarket and is greeted by one of her mother’s friends, who abrasively wraps her in a tight embrace. When the camera cuts to a wide shot, we are presented with an awkward scene: Martha and some stranger hugging in the middle of a public place. Not only have the intimate details of Martha’s grief been revealed to someone whom she doesn’t know well (the woman admits “your mother tells me everything”), but she is also now subjected to the gazes of strangers in the produce aisle.
As with that moment, most of the grief in Pieces of a Woman is conveyed without words. One of the reasons a mother grieving a baby is so particular is that it is acutely physical. People know when you are pregnant – the film opens with attendees at Martha’s baby shower admiring her bump – just as they know when you are no longer pregnant.
Instead of depicting grief with histrionics or crying fits, Mundruczó presents loss in the primal and almost involuntary way it is experienced by many grieving parents. When Martha sees an adorable little girl at the mall, for example, she begins to lactate. It is simply her body’s response to her yearning to feed a baby. The milk stains now seep through her shirt for the world to see, like a cruel brand of grief. The film does not shy away from the gritty details of the physical aftermath of birth. On her first day back at work, a shot of Martha’s gauze panties reveals that she is still bleeding – heavily. She also routinely has to ice her breasts with bags of frozen peas. Mundruczó also shows the painful aftermath of birth through the physical discomfort of intimacy putting up even more of a barrier between her and Sean.
The process of birth did not end when Martha had a baby – it extended itself past the birth and death of her child, with no end in sight. Sean, on the other hand, doesn’t wear his grief on his body like his partner. He attempts to express himself through words, but, when that doesn’t work, he turns to more physical vices, like sex and drugs.
From a storytelling perspective, the sometimes tedious thematic essence of Pieces of a Woman makes for a somewhat anticlimactic and, at times, dull watch. The first thirty minutes of the film are suspenseful, fast-paced, and bursting with emotion. The sound design is crowded with shouts, screams, groans, cries, and swears. The characters move quickly – and the camera follows them wherever they go. The rest of the film, however, reflects the abrupt loss of life. The characters are stagnant and paralyzed by their grief. It is raw and honest – but, as a result, is not nearly as exciting as it sets itself up to be.
Perhaps that is why it feels so fitting, then, that Pieces of a Woman ultimately becomes a quasi-court drama. The grief that is felt so viscerally must be placed somewhere. However, any climactic and dramatic scene feels somewhat misplaced in Pieces of a Woman – as if Mundruczó, like the characters, is desperately seeking an outlet for the tension of grief.
This also might be attributed to the fact that, although only two short scenes take place in a courtroom, in a sense the entirety of the film does. Martha is on trial by her loved ones for the entirety of the movie. Elizabeth tells Martha that she must do something with her grief, or else she will never get over it. Anita tells her she needs therapy. Sean tells her she must methodically go through the grieving process. But she does not want to do any of these things.
The reason Pieces of a Woman will work for some people is particularly the reason it will not work for others. It is honest in its stillness and slowness, but that honesty yields a tortured listlessness. Anything short of that, though, would be dishonest.
Pieces of a Woman begins exclusively streaming on Netflix starting January 7, 2021.