Young love, a new marriage, and the excitement of becoming parents for the first time implodes when a tragic accident occurs during the birthing process. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star in the new Netflix film “Pieces of a Woman” as Martha and Sean, the mismatched but charming couple who find themselves in an inexorable downward spiral after losing their baby. While the film expertly touches upon the emotional havoc that Martha experiences, it also captures the devastating aftershocks for everyone in her circle. Unfortunately, there are many pieces of the story that seem to be missing, leaving the viewer hanging and needing more information about each of the characters.
With these missing pieces, however, that’s not to say it’s not worth seeing. The performances are cutting and gutting, particularly in the first 30 minutes of the film. Kirby’s realistic portrayal of a woman during the birthing process leaves you breathless and cringing while LaBeouf’s role during this segment gives you sympathy for his helplessness. With skillful cinematography, we are there in the apartment with this couple with a seamless single shot following their every move. The scene is mesmerizingly beautiful and gut wrenching as we anticipate the outcome which after an excruciating 30 minutes devastatingly arrives.
“Pieces of a Woman” explores the emotional trauma from Martha’s point of view as she wrestles with her own guilt of having a midwife instead of going to the hospital for a traditional birth. There’s plenty of guilt to be dealt to everyone, but Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), Martha’s mother doles this out by the truckload. Never shying away from her disapproval of her marriage and all of Martha’s subsequent decisions, the two have obvious irreparable damage to their relationship. As the blame becomes focused on the split second decisions of the backup midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), Martha pulls further and further away from friends, family, and most importantly, her husband.
Writer Kata Wéber’s intimate perspective on the subject of loss during childbirth is chillingly realistic, but the story lacks that intimacy as we enter into the next year of Martha’s life. We see her only from the outside, never allowing us to hear her thoughts and feelings from the inside. And with that lack of understanding, we become disconnected from the character. Additionally, Sean is roiling not only from the loss of his child, but the loss of the wife he once knew, loved, and cherished. We get only snippets of his actions and interactions, but never enough to connect all the dots to the final scene. Of course, there are ramifications for Eva, but again, this is only superficially touched upon making the dramatic ending rather puzzling.
While the narrative element after the first grueling scene doesn’t hold water from a storytelling perspective, the performances from each and every actor are deeply moving. Kirby finds the harsh nuances of what it’s like to give birth, but takes it to a higher level. We feel what she feels and understand her guarded distance or lashing out after losing her baby. LaBeouf hits the right notes of the mourning husband with a volatile relationship with his mother-in-law. Parker has a small role, but a powerful one as a less competent and insecure midwife who must wrestle with the outcome. And it’s unfortunate that it is such a small role as exploring this character and what happens to her in that year would have augmented the story significantly.
Under the direction of Kornél Mundruczó, LaBeouf, Kirby, Burstyn, and Parker have standout performances with a cinematic vision that is unparalleled even with a story that loses its ability to bring the viewer into the emotional landscape after the first harrowing portion of the film. This is a film that will hit home with anyone who has lost a child during birth, but unfortunately, the storytelling element of the film and pieces of it were perhaps lost in the editing of the film or in the screenplay itself. I needed more answers to my questions of each of the character’s motivations for their decisions as too much seemed to have happened offscreen.
2 1/2 Stars