There are two ways you can try to forget about grief. You can try to go back to the high, the moment right before the fall, and long to that moment of anticipation just before the climax. The other option is to go back to a time without this good you have lost, so that there never is anything to mourn for in the first place. These two methods are not as dynamically opposed, at least until an outside version of grief, one dwelling upon anger, and wanting to fight back, prods the situation. Pieces of a Woman is the fall of a romance between these two coping strategies, and where it may feel cold is what prevents its staggeringly dramatic moments from feeling overdone.
We open to a thirty minute one-take, and a staggering performance. Vanessa Kirby is everything you’ve heard here, fully committed to a role built on gasping and hiccupping in anguish nonstop until the collapse that is the shock of grief. It’s all glazed in yellow, but it is not warm, intimate in a way that is uncomfortable to watch. Her young mother, Martha, is a character who is not defined by her grief even as others try their best to write that to her. The real strength is not that technically stunning opener, but the defiance against being defined solely by mourning and bitterness when picking yourself back up again.
Martha and Shawn (Shia Labeouf) lose their baby soon after birth, and this is not the climax, but the catalyst for the rest of the film. The couple begins to grow apart in their grief, strained by how differently they cope, and even more so from how the outside world interacts with them. Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is a particular obstacle in recovery, pushing harder and harder to make the midwife present when the birth went wrong face prison time. This supporting cast of characters finds a particular highlight in an appearance from Sarah Snook, and it’s an acting showcase all around.
Not to be the person who claims the common consensus “didn’t get it”, but the later parts of the film are no less necessary to the film than its immersive opening, and to say the seemingly clinical nature of these portions is a betrayal would make it a different film. Pieces of a Woman is about the many shapes grief takes, and how the conflict between them is often the reason for an action born of grief, not the pain of loss itself.
The main criticism is that the ending court scenes feel clinical, but isn’t that the point? There is only pressure to prosecute the midwife by outsiders, as the mother does not cast blame for something that may well have happened anyway. This scene can read as an exercise in forgiveness, but what really has to be forgiven here, but the luck of the world’s will. Everyone else in the courtroom begs the couple to punish the midwife, but it is Martha who asks why they all wish to punish a mistake as closure for the kids of her baby. She stands up for the midwife knowing everyone else around her just wants something to blame, and without this scene we would have a much different film, one that doesn’t speak out against defining other’s grief for them.
It’s a sort of unwritten rule that no one wants to watch a film about a dead baby. It can be a plot device, but as a subject it is an idea so dismal that it is not a draw to a filmic experience. Pieces of a Woman leaves the nuance intact, allowing its characters to react outside of pure devastation, which may grow slow at times but the payoff is surprisingly well-rounded. Both Shia Labeouf and Vanessa Kirby give great performances, but it is Kirby’s hot and cold routine, and jarring realism, that makes her the emotional core of the film, operating on all cylinders in what should be remembered as a career defining proof that she’s one to talk about.