- Katie Bell
Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Well...this one's not for the faint of heart.
Pieces of a Woman (2020) explores a six-month period, during which a mother mourns the death of her new-born baby. Other people are grieving too... There's definitely grieving all around. But mostly, this film is about Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her grief.
When the film opens, we are briefly introduced to the concept that Martha and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are expecting. Martha is finishing up at work, and they are throwing her a party with an exciting baby cake. Side note: why do people put babies on cakes? Am I the only person who finds this odd? Like I would never eat a human baby...so why would I decorate a cake with one? Look, it's probably just me, but just to be sure, I did check, and in this instance the cake baby is plastic and therefore inedible...it made me feel a little better. After the cake, they pick up the new family car, generously provided by Martha's wealthy mother (Ellen Burstyn), and then proceed home for the birth...
Hold on to your hats...
What follows may be one of the most intense moments of film that I have ever witnessed. This isn't a word of a lie. It is somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes of childbirth. And they don't skirt over it. This isn't one of those films that gives us a thirty second shot of the mother's face on the final push. Granted, I am somewhat easily affected by film, but I wanted to vomit during this scene, because the tension is so high. It's excruciating to watch, and I think this is mostly due to the clever way that it's filmed. The one-shot technique is used and everything happens in real time. It's naturalism, and it makes it very, very hard to think "this is just a film". Acknowledgement must be given to the actors in this scene, for maintaining their intensity during what must have been really long and gruelling takes. To be fair, there could have been some sneaky cuts...but I didn't see any, I was too stressed! Whilst the one-shot technique is responsible for most of the tension, my nausea was also induced by lines like, "I'm just going to put my fingers in and touch your cervix," and specific moments, such as the shot of the baby's head crowning. Yep. That happens. That really happens. As someone who is yet to fall pregnant, this twenty-five minute scene, really was a compelling reason to continue to procrastinate...and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
Thematically, this film explores grief, the different ways that people grieve, and the difficulties of losing a child. You really do empathise with the central characters in the month/s following the birth. Martha feels everyone's stares at work, she sees children everywhere, she lactates, every time she gets in the family car, she's reminded of the family that she doesn't have and to top it all off, she cops hugs in the supermarket from well-meaning, albeit irritating acquaintances. The communication between Martha and Sean breaks down (as might be expected); they don't agree on a lot, in terms of their grief, or the way that they should process what they've been through, and this leads to a whole lot of drama. Like...a lot of drama. Like, yeah, the genre of this film is technically drama, but so much happens. Martha becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. Sean quits his sobriety, launches a criminal/civil law suit behind Martha's back, begins having sex with Martha's cousin, crashes the family car on purpose to get a refund, initiates sex with Martha in what can only be described as an aggressive manner and throws a gym ball at Martha's head while she smokes a cigarette. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Ellen Burstyn bribing Sean to leave her daughter yet, or her monologue about being born in a shack at a concentration camp. It's a lot. Like, a huge amount. I get it, it's a drama, and I'm not saying that all of these things couldn't happen in a six month period. However, there is no doubt that I would have preferred a more focused script, and a less-is-more approach in some places.
To this film's credit, the actors do a really incredible job. The performances are very strong. And there is plenty of places to showcase their talents, because this film has a lot of monologues. I mean, it's not an unbearable amount (perhaps four?), and to be fair, these moments really did allow the actors to shine. But at times, I felt like the cast were playing the theatresports game Oscar Winning Moment. In case you aren't familiar, Oscar Winning Moment, is a game in which players perform a scene, based on a prompt, and at any given moment can break out of the action to deliver a monologue that is worthy of an Oscar nomination, to the audience. Usually, in theatresports, these monologues are included for the purpose of comedy. Sadly, in Pieces of a Woman they are used to discuss trauma, bridges and concentration camps. Happily though, some of the best acting happens during them. There's one scene in particular where both Kirby and Burstyn deliver monologues, and though the drama is most dramatic, the delivery from both actresses is phenomenal.
In summary, the performances are incredible, the birthing scene is powerful, and there's certainly some effective symbolism related to bridges (trying to keep it vague). However, the script seems to pass from drama to melodrama in places and I think that the final monologue loses some of its impact, simply due to the fact that it's (at least) the fourth to occur. As dramatic and painful as this film is to watch, if you are interested in sitting down to appreciate a good drama, without spoiling anything, Pieces of a Woman does finish with a "time heals all wounds" kinda vibe. Is it a happy ending? I'm not sure there could be a happy ending to a film with this kind of content. But it doesn't leave you feeling totally and completely hopeless, if that helps?
Would I ever watch it again? That's a hard no. Unless it was for the purpose of traumatising someone else with a naturalistic birthing scene, shot in one take. Sort of like how they pass on that VHS tape in The Ring?
It would be remiss of me not to post this link, which occurs at the end of the credits:
www.wannatalkaboutit.com. Should you want to catch Pieces of a Woman, you'll find it on Netflix.