Nearly every artistic element of Pieces of a Woman holds a fixation with its lead Vanessa Kirby and rightfully so. Co-stars encircle her aura hoping to get closer. They are met by a lithe posture contorted in guarded torment that holds back their approaches. Her icy blue eyes, arched by her dark eyebrows, hold dry from tears, hang open while lost in thought, and project stares when attention is gained. Of all the points of focus captured by director Kornél Mundruczó, Kirby’s hands are purposefully watched the most. Historical quotes keenly remind us “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and “nothing good comes from boredom.” Pieces of a Woman finds places to condone those vices.
The combinations of fingers and wrists are fascinating things to watch. What do the subject’s hands grasp, stroke, or fiddle with? Where do they go and why? Observe the speed, placement, and fidgets. There are nerves and emotions behind those movements every time. Mandy cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s camera loves the hands in this movie and they are excellent tells for the drama at hand. Better yet, what will your hands clutch while watching this tense Netflix film?
The Crown actress is introduced as Martha Weiss Carson, the daughter of her overbearingly traditional well-to-do Boston mother Elizabeth, embodied by 88-year-old Triple Crown Acting honoree Ellen Burstyn. Martha is married to brusque blue collar construction worker Sean Carson, played by Shia LeBeouf, and the two are eagerly expecting their first child. Martha’s birth plan is to have a home delivery through a midwife to avoid drugs and hospitals. When she rapidly goes into labor one night, a backup midwife (Molly Parker) arrives to guide the couple.
There is no more harrowing route to happiness and no higher fall for loss than human birth. Pieces of a Woman locks you into a massive 22-minute birthing sequence with no cuts, just an observational camera moving about the interiors, faces, and those aforementioned hands. The set piece is scoreless until about halfway in when the dialogue goes silent for a moment of fleeting affection between the married couple while Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore’s melodies, guided by Holger Groschopp’s solo piano, begin to shift tones. Every parent can testify to the opening sentence of this paragraph, especially when the result is the latter half. Rivaling similar circumstances in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and trading all the thrillers and action movies on the table, you will not find a more white-knuckle experience in a movie this year.
After this overwrought opener, Pieces of a Woman descends into the constricting grief and malaise of the months that follow. Calendar dates and seasonal aerial establishing shots of a bridge under construction mark the passage of time. Each chapter shows progress towards the structure’s unified completion. The opposite is happening on the human side elsewhere as lives unravel.
There is no compensation for losing a child. No measure of cheer can immediately soften this loss. Seeing other children and fulfilled parents only jade Martha further. Pity is not an engine of empathy when it’s cast towards people suffering. Different faiths have their philosophical and spiritual answers that attempt to bring their form of comfort. Furthermore, no money can appease such a thing or create some kind of exit strategy. Medical answers or a malpractice trial, like the one looming in the background of the film, try to justify fate or dispense blame to “answer for this monstrosity,” but neither can replace what was lost.
The sorrow of this entire ordeal silently shatters psyches and not so silently destroys familial relationships at a time with family should matter the most. Martha, Sean, and the meddlesome Elizabeth all uncouple from this event with different quakes of aftershocks with goals to feel something positive again. Contentious differences, inerasable shame, wayward sins, and bottled contempt all smolder like ulcers on souls preventing much healing. Impressive and stunning emotional explosions are unleashed from each of the three performers.
Written with reverberating pain by Mundruczó’s White God collaborator Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman is unshy with its heavy crisis. That opener alone is agonizing to watch. Even with enlisted birth consultant Elan McAllister guiding the rigor, for Kirby, the Volpi Cup winner for Best Actress at the Venice International Film Festival, to impersonate the incomprehensible is fiercely remarkable. She is matched with patient strength from LeBeouf that slowly shifts to worry when heart rates don’t return. It’s a hell of a wringer to see performed.
Concurrently, that opener is also admittedly hard to top with attention and hard to follow with investment. No energy can, nor should honestly, match that. It’s jarring to sink as low as this narrative does and not everyone is capable of visiting a personal place of despair. Coming down from that gripping beginning to wrestle with, let alone find, hope is immensely difficult, yet that’s the courage of Mundruczó and Weber to enter this territory without flinching.