Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. This is one of those universal truths, along with things like “the Earth is round” or “water is wet.” The devastation of losing a child is unimaginable, let alone losing one at the moment of birth. This is the story of Pieces of a Woman, which follows expectant parents Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf through the night of their daughter’s birth and then through the year after as they deal with the aftermath of her death.
A child’s death is not easy to watch, but the first scene of the film is entirely gripping. Shot in a single 30 minute take with a camera mounted on a stabilizer, that scene follows Kirby and LaBeouf’s Martha and Sean as Martha’s labour is progressing and their midwife is delayed. Finally, Molly Parker arrives, a last-minute replacement midwife to help them through the momentous occasion. The entire scene is tense and affecting, with the unbroken camera work serving to ramp up tension and anxiety as things seem to swing back and forth between being fine and decidedly not fine.
Kirby –already a megastar in the making– is incredible throughout the film but these first few minutes are where she (and LaBeouf and Parker) really shine. It’s a complicated and demanding scene that they all imbued with a sense of real emotion. It is one of the most stunning and stressful scenes I can recall seeing in a film this year.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a little meandering. I imagine this is the point, and Martha and Sean meander through life and their grief. Each of them is good, with recently confirmed dirtbag Shia LaBeouf playing the realistically heartbroken and rage-filled husband as a man unable to process his emotions fully. Martha seems to go the opposite way, wanting to stay in her grief as long as possible as some tenuous connection to her lost motherhood. Still, while this does make sense, it feels at times like the film has lost focus.
The other standout performance comes from living legend Ellen Burstyn playing Martha’s mother Elizabeth. Elizabeth is domineering and aggressive, and thinks that the way through is to fight no matter what the situation is. The clashes between her and her daughter and son-in-law are painful to watch due to the fundamental disconnect between how they each want to handle the situation.
Pieces of a Woman is not an easy film, but it’s not meant to be. One gets the feeling that real-life partners Kornél Mundruczó (director) and Kata Wéber (writer) have been through some tragedy akin to this one, and they are working through their emotions through their art, something that one can’t help but admire.
Pieces of a Woman starts strong and finishes strong, but sags in the middle. Still, the first scene, and the performances throughout, make it worth your time.
Pieces of a Woman will be released in select theatres on December 30th, and debut on Netflix on January 7th.