Unless you’ve been through it, you don’t know.
Written by Kata Weber and directed by her husband, Kornel Mundruzco, Pieces of a Woman tells the story of Martha and Sean Carson (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf), a young Boston couple who are excited for the imminent arrival of their first child. However, after their home birth goes awry, the two are left to grapple with the realities of grief and its impact on their relationship. Over the course of the next year, Martha struggles to maintain her increasingly-distanced relationship with her spouse while her vicious mother (Ellen Burstyn) attempts to serve her own agenda by seeking justice in her own way.
First of all, full disclosure here. As someone who’s family has experienced several miscarriages, I admit my personal connection with the subject matter. Widely experienced but rarely spoken of, the loss of a child is a moment that becomes a marker in one’s life and creates a series of complex emotions that are simply hard to express, let alone onscreen. As a result, despite the film’s ‘buzz’, I maintained a certain level of scepticism about the film.
Thankfully, Pieces of a Woman manages to depict the realities of grief in a way that is both sensitive and challenging to those who have been there.
Written out of their own experiences of suffering and loss, Weber and Mundruzco have brilliantly woven together a narrative that reflects the silent pain of many. Though the film features stunning performances and a tightly-written script, the most memorable aspect of Pieces of a Woman is its ability to draw the viewer in emotionally. This is a film which wants the viewer to feel present with its characters during their anguish and joy. For example, through the film’s use of long takes—including the remarkable 24-minute birthing scene—Pieces places the viewer within these moments and asks the audience to experience them for themselves. In these spaces, minutes feel like hours for the viewer as each breath is packed with a wide scope of emotion.
The major building blocks to the success of Pieces are its incredible performances, especially that of its leads. Over the course of his character arc, LeBeouf demonstrates his range as Sean oscillates between joy, rage and utter depression. (Honestly, though issues in his personal life have proven problematic, it truly is remarkable how much he has matured as an actor.) What’s more, as Martha’s soul-crushing mother, Burstyn is positively brilliant, operating with cruelty yet fully convinced of her beliefs.
Even so, much of the talk will (rightly) be centered around Kirby’s effort within this piece. Without over-selling her work, Kirby’s performance is simply mesmerizing as Martha, a woman fighting to survive each moment of the day. While moments of outburst are normally what gets noticed around Oscar time, the most powerful aspects of her performance are in the moments of silent anguish. In many ways, this is a role which requires restraint as much of the pain of loss remains unspoken. Nevertheless, the intensity that Kirby displays as Martha brings her breaking heart to life with every untamed glare.
Taking place over a year of their lives, Pieces shows that pain lingers. Whether it’s seeing a display in a children’s window or having to endure a family dinner, any number of moments can trigger the reminder of who has been lost and have a ripple effect throughout one’s relationships. For example, while their romance feels authentic at first, the chemistry between Kirby and LeBeouf shifts dramatically after their loss as their inaudible pain creates an increasing abyss of awkward silence. Though once incredibly close, their inability to process their grief together drives a wedge within their relationship that may be irreparable.
However, as difficult as it may be to live in such anguish, Pieces also points to hope. Since the experience differs for everyone, presenting the ebbs and flows of grief require a certain level of nuance so as not to suggest that there is only one way to cope in these circumstances. Impressively though, Martha’s emotional journey towards healing feels authentic. Most importantly, while it sits in the soul-shattering pain of loss, Pieces explores the complex relationship between healing and forgiveness. While admittedly, some of the dialogue in the film’s climactic courtroom battle feels forced, Martha’s journey towards emotional freedom lies rooted in her ability to release blame. As anyone who has experienced grief can tell you, moments such as these rightly cause anyone to search for answers. But what if none can be found? How we answer these questions ultimately determine our ability to begin to move forward and Pieces wrestles with these questions beautifully.
Undeniably, as the husband in our relationship, I will not (nor should I) claim to fully understand what my wife when through during our family struggles. In that way, I recognize my limited blinders in truly connecting with the material of Pieces of a Woman. Nonetheless, my personal experiences in grief does provide a certain perspective to this film that I cannot separate from my appreciation for it. I’m sure that, if I tried, I could find plot holes and question things like the soundtrack, etc. Though, to me, that’s simply not the point of Pieces.
This is a film which, not only has some of the best performances of the year, but also depicts the nature of grief in a way that remains sensitive to those who have struggled in silence. That’s a testament not only to the cast but also to Weber and Mundruzco’s willingness to explore their own battle with grief in a way that could only stem from experience.
Because, frankly, unless you’ve been through it, you simply don’t know.
Pieces of a Woman is available on Netflix on January 7th, 2021.