Mourning the loss of a child is a deep, specific, and enigmatic kind of pain. It is almost impossible to communicate with those who have not experienced it, and subsequently cause intense loneliness in the victim. Pieces of a woman explores the feeling of grieving a child; raw, lethargic, and sometimes confusing. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) knows this story has no room for melodrama – just the truths that people often shy away from.
Mundruczó’s English-language debut is primarily a film about the harrowing postponement of grief. At the beginning of the film, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are expecting their first child. There is only a short scene before Martha goes to work. The couple wants to give birth to their home and calls their midwife. But she is in the middle of another job, so she sends Eva (Molly Parker), instead. For twenty-four minutes (in one take) the film steadfastly shows Martha’s painful and precarious birth that ends in bliss – and then in heartbreak. After their first breath, the baby will turn blue.
The rest of the film follows Martha and Sean as they cross a new, alien world of grief. And what should A film that shows Martha being supported by the world is really a film that shows Martha against the world. Together with Sean, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) and Martha’s sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger), are obsessed with telling the grieving mother exactly how to grieve.
In one of the first scenes after Martha’s tragic birth at home, she visits the supermarket and is greeted by a friend of her mother’s who hugs her aggressively. When the camera takes a wide-angle shot, we are presented with an uncomfortable scene: Martha and a stranger hug in the middle of a public square. Not only have the intimate details of Martha’s grief been revealed to someone she doesn’t know well (the woman admits that “your mother tells me everything”), but she is now exposed to the eyes of strangers in the hallway.
As in this moment, most of the grief is in Pieces of a woman is conveyed without words. One of the reasons a mother grieves so particularly for a baby is because it is acute, physical. People know when you’re pregnant – the movie opens with people attending Martha’s baby shower admiring her bump – just like they know when you’re no longer pregnant.
Instead of depicting grief with histrionics or crying, Mundruczó shows the loss in the original and almost involuntary way that is experienced by many grieving parents. For example, when Martha sees an adorable little girl in the mall, she begins to lactate. It’s simply your body’s response to your desire to feed a baby. The milk stains are now seeping through her shirt for the world to see, like a cruel kind of grief. The film doesn’t shy away from the rough details of the physical consequences of childbirth. On her first day at work, a photo of Martha’s gauze pants shows that she is still bleeding – heavily. She also needs to routinely ice her breasts with bags of frozen peas. Mundruczó also shows the painful aftermath of childbirth through the physical discomfort of intimacy that creates an even greater barrier between her and Sean.
The birthing process didn’t end when Martha had a baby – it stretched beyond the birth and death of her child with no end in sight. Sean, on the other hand, doesn’t carry his grief like his partner does on his body. He tries to express himself through words, but when that doesn’t work, he turns to more physical vices, like sex and drugs.
From a narrative perspective, that’s the sometimes boring thematic essence of Pieces of a woman makes for a somewhat anti-climatic and sometimes boring watch. The first thirty minutes of the film are exciting, fast-paced and full of emotions. The sound design is full of shouts, screams, moans, crying and cursing. The characters move quickly – and the camera follows them wherever they go. However, the rest of the film reflects the sudden loss of life. The characters stand still and are paralyzed by their grief. It’s raw and honest – but not nearly as exciting as it makes itself out to be as a result.
Maybe that’s why it feels so fitting Pieces of a woman ultimately becomes a court-like drama. The grief felt so viscerally has to be placed somewhere. However, every climatic and dramatic scene feels a little out of place Pieces of a woman – as if Mundruczó, like the characters, is desperately looking for an exit to the tension of grief.
This could also be attributed to the fact that while only two short scenes take place in a courtroom, in some ways the entire film does. Martha is put on trial by loved ones for the entire film. Elizabeth tells Martha that she must do something with her grief or she will never get over it. Anita tells her that she needs therapy. Sean tells her that she needs to go through the grieving process methodically. But she doesn’t want to do any of these things.
The reason Pieces of a woman will work for some people especially is why it won’t work for others. It is honest in its silence and slowness, but this honesty leads to an agonized listlessness. Anything else would be dishonest, however.
Pieces of a Woman will be streamed exclusively on Netflix from January 7, 2021.