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Pieces of a Woman

Released 2020. Director: Kornel Mundruczo

THE BIRTH OF A BABY TURNS FROM HOPEFUL AND EXPECTANT to heartbreaking and excruciating in Pieces of a Woman. So if you have a friend who’s pregnant, probably not such a great idea to recommend this movie.

First-time mother-to-be Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is about to bring her baby to the world at home, with help from her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and midwife Eva (Molly Parker). As audience we are in the same room, an arm’s length, sometimes less, from Martha, as she goes through the physical agony. Sean is a rock and a cushion, giving support and comfort while the midwife checks for heartbeat and intones gentle instructions, as we watch, and watch, probably clutching at the armrests at the tense and inexorably lengthy process. Groaning, burping, cursing, Martha steels herself for a difficult birth. Half an hour later, tragedy strikes.

From here on, the story stretches over the next year as we see how Martha and those around her cope with this devastating loss. And there is no reprieve from the gruelling experience we have just witnessed.

Pieces of a Woman is very much a study of Martha’s state of mind. Her coping mechanism and management of grief turns her inwards, as she retreats deeper into herself. She shuts off everyone in her life, including those closest to her, barely acknowledging the sorrow expressed by others as though she’s the only person who truly understands the depth of the tragedy.

Martha’s mother Elizabeth (an impressively piercing Ellen Burstyn) tries to bring her daughter out of her gloom but she’s not doing it the right way to get through. By turns insensitive, manipulative, difficult, all Elizabeth succeeds in doing is driving her daughter even further.

Sean suffers all the same, but he doesn’t find an equal partner as Martha has distanced herself from him. Never been truly accepted by Elizabeth, and finding himself utterly alone in his bereavement, this former addict has a relapse.

The sense of chill is everywhere. Boston in winter looks extra cold in the company of this family. The exteriors are often cloaked in snowy gray, thick jackets and boots, scarves and beanies. Director Kornel Mundruczo also uses the image of a bridge in construction as marker of time and an irony. As the bridge spans from opposite sides inch closer each time the scene cuts back to it, which is about a month apart, you realise the people are really drifting further away. Sean works on the construction of the bridge, just to add another element to the visual metaphor.

Vanessa Kirby has always had an air of aloofness in the characters she plays. The ability to project distance and unapproachability seems to be a default setting, which makes her perfect for this role. Here’s a woman in an emotional lockdown and isolated in a dark place all by herself, unable or unwilling to let anyone in. Kirby takes the heart of the movie and stuffs it in a freezer, a heart beating in anguish and anger. Even in a delicate and beautiful symbolic scene when Martha sees her apple seeds have sprouted, there’s a sense of bitterness, not joy. Martha’s iciness thaws a little in an emotional court scene towards the end when she forgives the midwife, thus saving the movie from becoming a complete Arctic excursion.

Pieces of a Woman will probably discourage anyone from planning a home birth. It might also be doing a disservice to midwives. Whilst I empathise with Martha, I also feel as though the movie, in particular Kirby’s blistering mix of rage and guilt, is making me feel bad -- that I'm not feeling bad enough.


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