‘Pieces of a Woman’ Review: A Raw, Ragged Study of a Loss
There are two notable scenes in “Pieces of a Woman,” though the first – a nearly 30-minute, largely unbroken opening shot of a home birth – seems to divert critical attention from the second.
This scene, which appears about halfway through the film, feels at least as radical and brave as its precedent. In it we see the central couple, Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) trying to have sex. Both mourn their child; But while Martha has turned inward, Sean is reaching for something with visible aggression.
The fight wavers on the brink of strength; What distracts that impression is our knowledge of the couple’s closeness (beautifully anchored in the opening scene) and Kirby’s intense physical performance. She mostly uses body language and conveys Martha’s desperate need to accommodate her husband’s desire to feel something other than emptiness. It would be unfortunate, therefore, if the current allegations of abuse against LaBeouf were to detract from their abilities.
“Pieces of a Woman” penetrates an intimate, natural tone with almost soapy fragments of melodrama and almost expresses them. In the English-language debut of the Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo (known for his stunning drama “White God” from 2015) the film does not always gel: The couple’s striving for legal action against their seemingly impeccable midwife (Molly Parker) feels at odds to the dense emotionality of the film. But when everything clicks, the script (by the director’s wife, Kata Weber, who relies on memories of a similar experience) clearly shows how an unimaginable loss can trigger a cascade of atrophy.
As Sean, a construction worker in long recovery, LaBeouf lends a touching loneliness to a character who, driven by his wife’s retreat, seeks connection and sensation elsewhere. Class and upbringing differences become apparent, strengthened by Martha’s wealthy mother (a great Ellen Burstyn), a steel-spiked Holocaust survivor. Family disputes are about decisions that mean nothing and everything after a devastating bereavement: the disposition of the child’s remains, the spelling of his chosen name.
Other voices, however, are just white noise for Martha walking alone on the cool streets of Boston, save for Benjamin Loeb’s sliding, compassionate camera. In a grocery store, she breathes in the scent of an apple, later wraps its tiny seeds in damp cotton and places them tenderly in the refrigerator. It takes a while to find out why; But Kirby (wonderful as the young Princess Margaret in the Netflix series “The Crown”) lets Martha’s agony feel so strongly that details hardly matter. The film focuses on the physical – the way your body continues to leak postpartum fluids; The way she twitches when friends move to touch her – so relentless that it becomes a narrative.
Set in eight harrowing months, “Pieces of a Woman” is a ragged, fascinating study of rupture and rebuilding. The ending is badly judged, but the film understands that although we love together, we mourn alone.
Pieces of a woman
Valued R for tasteful explicit birth. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters. Start watching Netflix January 7th. Please read the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching films in theaters.