Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Screenwriter: Kata Wéber
Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Ellen Burstyn, Shia LaBeouf, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker
Grief is one of the few human experiences that manages to be both paradoxically singular and entirely universal. Anatomically speaking, loss compares to being wholly composed of your former self’s broken and shattered pieces, the empty spaces in between a dark and heavy matter unknown in the physical realm. Those of us already acquainted with it will recognise this hollow loneliness coursing through Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman like an old, half-forgotten friend. Mundruczó’s triumph here is not his attempt to deliver an exposé on the process of dealing with such an all-consuming emotion, but his ability to reach beyond the screen, uniting his audience in the shared recognition of life at its lowest ebb.
Pieces of a Woman opens with a man, Sean (Shia LeBeouf), a blue-collar worker, boorish by his own description, working construction on a new bridge which he swears his unborn daughter will be the first to cross. He meets his heavily pregnant partner, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), at a car lot, where, despite his protests, Martha’s Mother (Ellen Burstyn) is purchasing a car from her son-in-law (a wild Benny Safdie appears) for the soon to be nuclear family: ‘I can pay’ Sean says to deaf ears. He gifts Martha with a framed ultrasound; she hangs it in the baby’s ready and waiting room. All of this preamble to the birth, which Mum and Dad have decided will happen at home.
During a twenty-four minute, extended one-shot real-time scene, we stay intrusively close to Martha and Sean as they attempt to welcome life into the world. It isn’t as simple as an average birth scene: lay back on the bed, legs apart, breathe, scream, push, done. Martha’s complications come in waves. The first, a terse phone call with their appointed midwife who can no longer attend the labour. ‘We’re flipping cards’ Sean says with faux calmness as he hangs up the phone: a replacement midwife will be with them shortly. Martha turns animal in seconds, belching with gusto and writhing in pain on the floor as new midwife Eva (Molly Parker) attempts to corral her into action. Further problems arise as we move through the exquisitely executed one-take scene: blood, the unborn baby’s irregular heartbeat, the rush to deliver as quickly as possible. Yet, rather than wow with camera trickery and movie magic, Mundruczó’s delicately choreographed scene works to allow us to create a bond with these characters. When the scene ends, and we move forward into their lives following their child’s death, we understand them better for having been there, for having lived through every second of the ordeal with them.
What comes next is raw agony muted by unprocessed grief, resentment, and a void as vast as the one existing between the two sides of Sean’s unfinished bridge. Prefaced by the date and a wide shot of the bridge, we watch as seasons change and time – in its refusal to wait for permission – move on. The dates seem random, no big holidays or birthdays, just average days, perhaps the hardest days in our characters’ lives following their tragedy. Fractions arise: how to spell a name, what to do with the body, or who, if anyone, is to blame? Nobody is sure what the next move should be, or what action might work to propel them forwards. Sean self-medicates with drugs and alcohol, ruining his seven-year sobriety. Martha’s mother, Elizabeth, urges legal action, bringing in cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) to take charge of a negligence case. In a compelling monologue, using her history of surviving the holocaust as motivation, she cruelly insists her dead-eyed daughter begin fighting for herself. Martha develops a fixation on apples, attempting to create life another way as she learns how to seed the pips; shell-shocked and exhausted, everything else is background noise to her.
The cast give it everything they have and then some. Kirby is an exposed nerve. As Martha, she is a woman condemned to go on living: despondent, reserved, mentally trapped in the land of the lost. Like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, she also manages to maintain a steady, distressing tension throughout; she’s like that soft, quiet calm preluding the untold devastation of a hurricane. An impossible to contain well of unbearable pain seeps out of her every movement, her every word. Often, in other such harrowing films, we see trauma in action. Here we see how it manifests, how it impacts. Mundruczó and Kirby work to create an honest reality, the likes of which we have only ever experienced before underneath fabricated movie melodrama. With a thick beard and heavy gait, LeBeouf is a device waiting to detonate. His familiar wild-eyed, uncomfortable intensity works to elevate Sean beyond the limitations of his character. Undeniably, LeBeouf has a distinctive way of making every character he steps into belong intrinsically to him. Yet some moments are too close for comfort: given the recent accusations made against him, an aggressive sex scene leaves a sour taste. Although his usual wheelhouse of skills works well here, the character never moves beyond Shia’s reliable scope.
There’s a lovely eclectic mix of actors in the supporting roles. Where else could a Hollywood legend such as Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist; Requiem for a Dream), a stand-up comic, Iliza Shlesinger, a ‘’Succession’’ star and a Safdie Brother come up against, and spar with, a Disney child-actor turned Blockbuster star and ‘’The Crown’s’ Princess Margaret? When Pieces of a Woman threatens to veer off – Sean’s inconsequential affair with cousin Suzanne, some slightly unbelievable courtroom drama – one of the diversely talented cast members manages to steer the story back on course. Kirby especially acts as an anchor on which the story depends.
Pieces of a Woman taps into the idiosyncrasies of womanhood, of loss, of motherhood. It acknowledges not only the effects of grief on those closest to the loss but on those further afield, also thrown off course by the agonising experiences of their loved ones; an agony they can do little to fix. Unflinching in its execution, the film is dark and often unbearable to watch. However, as a whole, it speaks to the process of healing, the process of returning to life after significant trauma. Its biggest gift is the hope it alludes to when it suggests there is an opportunity, for all who have lost, to hopefully put those shattered pieces of themselves back together again.