TIFF 2020: PIECES OF A WOMAN: A Veristic Portrait Of Grief Bolstered By Its Star

Where do we go from here? 

This is what Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber ask us to consider in Pieces of a Woman. It’s never vocalized, nor does it act as anything more than a looming question mark, but its presence is felt. This query is dissected frame by frame, glance by glance, by Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a grief-stricken couple navigating the aftermath of a failed home birth. Pieces of a Woman is stained by tears, blood, and other fleshy matters, but between its crushing folds lies that faintly hopeful question. 

The Inhale

We’re very much in the room with them when it happens. The labour is shot in real-time, but its final minutes move at an incomprehensibly fast pace. While the sequence doesn’t feel rushed or incomplete, there is a strobic quality to how we experience it. One that limns the physical horrors of giving birth through Benjamin Loeb’s entrancing camerawork. We watch as the midwife (Molly Parker) weaves in and out of rooms, her panic disguised as silence; Sean cradles Martha’s head like a baby; there’s blood in the bathwater; the midwife’s croons grow hollow. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: PIECES OF A WOMAN: A Veristic Portrait Of Grief Bolstered By Its Star
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Was it stress? A glass of wine or a roll of sushi? Medical negligence? Even after experiencing it as a thirty-minute long take, flushed with gruesomely intimate close-ups and scored by Vanessa Kirby’s guttural moans, we can’t even venture a guess. But we’re nevertheless given an answer; the midwife has been charged with negligence, misconduct, and manslaughter, and will face trial in the coming weeks. Having someone legally atone for their actions may be a first step to answering that fateful question, but as we soon find out, there’s much more to it than that. 

Instead of sensationalizing the couple’s trauma by having the film veer into a legal drama, Mundruczó ensures that our gaze remains firmly planted on Martha. In the face of grief, familial turmoil, and media frenzy, her actions become increasingly volatile. She grasps at a warm past now out of reach, and while seemingly collected, is internally falling to pieces. We watch her emotionless gaze shift from the breastmilk leaking through her shirt to sticky apple seeds in her palm to little girls who look just like their mothers. Her disaffection is perceived as indifference by her own mother (Ellen Burstyn), and as hostility by Sean. Unlike them, she copes through stillness. 

The Hold

Despite there being so much to love about it, Pieces of a Woman is as fractured as its title suggests. The first and second acts are persuasive, unforgiving looks into loss; they clutch and bite and sometimes worse. But these raw emotions taper off the farther we veer from Martha and Sean, or rather, the farther they veer from each other. The final act is frustratingly muddied by family politics, and the ending appears entirely severed from its skillfully apprehensive opening. The only notable consistency amidst this perplexing finale is the film’s star, its fragmented woman. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: PIECES OF A WOMAN: A Veristic Portrait Of Grief Bolstered By Its Star
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Vanessa Kirby delivers a career-best performance, one that will likely propel her into the 2021 awards circuit with grace. Her range is on full display here, with tormented birthing cries bleeding into purposeful silences. Shia LaBeouf, fresh off of his Honey Boy sentimentalism, shakes up that familiar cocktail of rugged angst and quiet vulnerability with great success. The two performances work beautifully in tandem, upending those tropes of the “stoic man” and the “temperamental woman”, showing us that there is no right way to grieve. 

The Exhale

I’ll leave you with a moment—now etched into my brain—where Martha sinks her teeth into Sean’s arm during her labour. Gnawing in some teething, infantile, excruciating way, she shares her pain with him the only way that she can. This image takes on a bitter taste when you know that they soon after lose their child, but in isolation, it’s a striking snapshot of their relationship. Pieces of a Woman’s final takeaways may not feel especially profound or new, but the film is nevertheless chock-full of these indelible moments; ones that help you ride out its harsher sequences with earnest warmth and genuine care. The film may fumble its landing, but the takeoff makes it worth experiencing.  

So, where do we go from here? The spoiler-free answer: forward.

Pieces of a Woman screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

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