Kornél Mundruczó‘s Pieces of a Woman begins with a sense of urgency, a hasty afternoon full of mixed feelings between excitement and fear. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), an engineer, hastily leaves the bridge construction he’s been eagerly working on and rushes home. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) can barely hide her emotions as she leaves her office’s baby shower celebration. She’s pregnant with a girl and she’s due on that fateful evening. The smell of unease exudes in the air and, even, last-minute tension arises and cools down almost rapidly as the labor’s arriving. Nobody has been prepped for whatever comes after and, apparently, nobody saw that coming even when it arrives with excruciating details.
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The story, muddled with emotional tug of war, is based on the director’s personal life with Kata Wéber, who writes the screenplay (as well as Mundruczó‘s previous works, White God and Jupiter’s Moon). The autobiographical mood is almost explicit as portrayed in the first 30 minutes of this film. It’s almost like a subjective second-to-second reconstruction of the pain and restlessness they had during the fateful childbirth channeled through the leads’ committed performance. Kirby immediately takes the center-stage as the pain begins to take over and traumatic moment unravels; and, in an instance, she assumes the whole film with her dominating screen presence.
The conflict begins setting in motion as Martha and Sean’s preferred midwife is unable to attend the labor and sends a replacement instead. Eva (Molly Parker), the replacement, is an assuring figure, but even to a professional of her capability, the 24-minute one-take birth process is a depressing moment. The whole sequence is well-crafted with harrowing details and Benjamin Loeb’s camera that refuses to look away from the pain and nervousness of the couple as well as the midwife. It’s inarguably a tough watch and, with the film’s presentation, it looks like a fear-inducing, traumatic moment. As the film leans on hinting that the struggle is worth it, the unthinkable happens in anti-climactic event that won’t allow you to release the sighs of relief.
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Pieces of a Woman attempts to capture the profound emotional experience of tragic loss and the trauma that follows. For all the efforts, the film perfectly captures the tragic loss, which even with the narrative and technical prowess, isn’t a moment to rewind and relive. What it finds difficult to capture is the aftermath. After dedicating around one-third of the duration to present the loss, the narrative is a little lost in finding balance to portray the grief. The message is: everyone processes grief differently, but having too many people to focus on the PTSD is a challenging process. When it follows Kirby and her grief-stricken character, the film emanates its true nature; but, when it gets to humanize LaBeouf‘s character, who succumbs into a series of self-destructive behaviors, and Ellen Burstyn‘s domineering mother character, who feels the need to have her voice heard in the proceeding, the narrative fumbles and stumbles. The inconsistent pacing that plagues the rest of the story doesn’t help to encapsulate how time enters as a variable in the story.
Pieces of a Woman is an important story about resilience and, more importantly, self-healing. People grief and heal differently; that’s what this drama is all about as portrayed compellingly with powerful performances from the leads individually, even when they do not synchronize as a collective. Uneven narrative coverage, however, muddles and distracts it from its true potentials.