“Pieces of a woman” is a film that makes us think about the fragility of our human existence and how we are not in control of our lives and projects, because from one moment to the next, the universe turns our lives upside down and our plans change. What was just synonymous with happiness turns into sadness.
The 2020 American drama film, scripted by Kata Wéber, directed by Kornél Mundruczó and starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, and Ellen Burstyn, portrays the story of Martha and Sean, a young Boston couple, who are expecting their first child. Sean resents Martha’s mother Elizabeth, a wealthy Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor, who is buying them a minivan.
Martha goes into labour at their home and Sean calls their midwife Barbara; she is unavailable and sends another midwife named Eva in her place. Martha struggles with nausea and pain during contractions and, when she reaches ten centimetres, Eva realizes the baby’s heart rate has dropped dangerously low. Sean asks Eva if they are safe to continue and Eva tells Sean to call an ambulance. Martha soon gives birth to a baby girl who at first seems healthy. Eva then notices the baby is turning blue and attempts to revive her, but she goes into cardiac arrest and dies.
After having established the conflict, in a long shot sequence introducing the narrative, by the way very well directed by Kornél Mundruczó, bringing reality to the story, and also excellent performances by the major roles Kirby, LaBeouf, and Parker, exploring the plot peculiarly by focusing how Martha and Sean deal with the tragedy of losing a baby after birth and realising that the dream of being parents has become a nightmare. Suddenly, they perceive that they are involved in a drama that mobilises national public opinion, the press and the American court.
The following month, Martha and Sean deal with grieving pain differently while trying to survive. They attend an appointment with a coroner; Sean is eager to find out what went wrong, while Martha is reluctant. They learn the cause of death has not yet been established but are told they were able to determine that the baby was in a low-oxygen environment and have started proceedings against Eva.
The relationship between Martha and Sean continues to be strained, as is Martha’s relationship with her mother, who wants to bury the baby and have a funeral. Both Martha and Sean remain deeply depressed. Suzanne, Martha’s cousin who is also the attorney prosecuting Eva, informs him that a potential lawsuit against Eva could be very lucrative. However, Martha is not interested in this kind of justice.
Screenwriter Kata Wéber started writing the script “Pieces of a Woman” in 2017, inspired by the legal case of Agnes Geréb, the pioneer of home birthing in Hungary (country where she is from), who had been forbidden to practice for 10 years on account of her supposed neglect of two babies who had died. During the film, the narrative does not focus on the political storyline about either the midwife was neglected or not, but it focuses on the personal tragedy that destabilises Martha and Sean, dissolves their marriage and lead them to self-destructive behaviours . Sean goes back to using cocaine after years clean and having casual sex with Suzanne, also becomes violent. While Martha is in an almost catatonic state. She isolates herself into her world. We can see her pain through her body language.
Vanessa Kirby found the right tone to play Martha, always trying to be self-centred, with restrained gestures, even destroyed inside. She surrenders her pain through the expressions of her gaze and her silence. Her performance led her to an Oscar nomination for “Best Actress” and she has a good chance of taking the statuette home. Shia LaBeouf also defends her character, Sean, with honour. He is convincing playing a simple, rustic, working-class and ex-addicted man. Another brilliant performance is played by Ellen Burstyn, who brings to life Elizabeth, a harsh, cold, wealthy Jewish Martha’s mother, who often blames her daughter for the wrong choices – from marrying an unsuitable boy to the way she conducts mourning and lawsuit. Through Martha and Elizabeth’s relationship, there’s even a brief exploration of generational trauma and how that affects a person’s ability to grieve.
The script is very good (with a a beautiful ending with bits of hope), the performances are great, but I had the feeling that the film could have had more emotion in storytelling, especially for exploring such a dense and engaging theme. I still don’t know how to express exactly what was missing in this movie so that I could connect more with it, but despite that, it is undoubtedly a classy film.