Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Written by Kata Webér
Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn
‘A Heartbreaking Homebirth Drama’
It is never easy to come to terms with the loss of a child. As any expecting couple would be able to attest, there is nothing more disturbing in the world than losing a newborn infant. Following this tragic event, spouses are forced to face feelings of agony, misery and resentment that they harbor towards each other. Furthermore, there’s the added pressure of failing to meet family expectations. Finally, losing a newborn baby often leads to legal ramifications when a midwife is involved in the childbirth process. Due to its controversial nature, Hollywood has always avoided addressing childbirth in films. Consequently, it is rare to see realistic depictions of miscarriages in movies.
In this regard, Kornél Mundruczó‘s latest film “Pieces of a Woman” is an audacious achievement. An intimate, heartbreaking and profound family drama, it offers an unflinching look at the dangers of homebirths. With his English-language debut, director Kornél Mundruczó captures the experiences of a childless woman with extraordinary empathy. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, intellectual storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is an effective homebirth drama. Although “Pieces of a Woman” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and builds to an anticlimactic conclusion that raises questions. Nonetheless, it offers poignant entertainment that will satisfy fans of art-house Cinema.
Based on actual experiences, “Pieces of a Woman” chronicles the life of a woman that must overcome a traumatic loss. Vanessa Kirby stars in the leading role as Martha Weiss, an anxious woman that eagerly anticipates the birth of her first baby. Assisted by her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf), Martha decides to give birth at home in spite of the risks involved. However, Martha’s dreams are shattered when her infant suddenly dies. As her marriage disintegrates, Martha wonders whether her fractured life can ever be pieced back together.
Director Kornél Mundruczó is a newcomer to the topic of childbirth. Mundruczó is an eminent Hungarian filmmaker that is best known for his award-winning psychological thrillers (ex. 2014’s “White God”). “Pieces of a Woman”, however, marks his first English-language feature and foray into the lives of women that experience miscarriages. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the lives of women that lose their children in labor, but he pulls it off successfully. Using spellbinding cinematography, Mundruczó draws viewers into the life of a woman that struggles to cope with the death of her newborn infant. Mundruczó’s decision to shoot the opening childbirth sequence in one continuous 24-minute long take is risky, but it works tremendously. Through long takes, Mundruczó effectively conveys the emotional turmoil of a childbirth that turns catastrophic. It’s an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience, making audiences active participants in the painful childbirth nightmare. Working alongside cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, Mundruczó creates a breathtaking movie in which each frame captures the trauma of losing an infant. Mundruczó excels at recreating the aftermath of an ill-fated childbirth, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.
If stories of tragic childbirths do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Pieces of a Woman”. The film is extremely well-written, and offers an empathetic look at the experiences of women that lose their infants in labor. Kata Webér’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her ability to capture the emotions of a grief-stricken woman through symbolism. In Hollywood, most movies avoid using symbolism and rely on surface-level details to keep viewers entertained. This often leaves little room for meaningful conversations and prevents viewers from engaging with movies on a deeper level. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Pieces of a Woman”. Webér effectively applies fruit symbolism to trace Martha’s journey through grief. For example, apple seeds symbolize Martha’s source of hope as she goes from grieving to confronting her loss. Through this ingenious symbolism, Webér creates a compelling female character whom audiences can easily empathize with. Symbolism is a tricky technique to employ successfully in dramas. When used inappropriately, it can often become a distraction and hinder the cinematic experience. However, it works immensely in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Webér keeps viewers engaged in the journey of a traumatized woman that confronts tragedy.
It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. The film is mainly an awe-inspiring showcase for its leading lady.
Vanessa Kirby delivers her finest performance to date as Martha Weiss. Following her breakthrough turn in 2016’s “The Crown”, Kirby has proven to be an excellent actress with an aptitude for playing Royal Family figures. With “Pieces of a Woman”, however, she takes on her most tough role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a woman that loses her child. It’s an emotionally draining role that requires a certain degree of physical commitment. However, Kirby pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, she captures the anger, disillusionment and frustrations of a woman that struggles to overcome a tragic loss. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from one of the most seasoned British actresses working today.
The supporting cast is stellar and also worthy of recognition. Shia LaBeouf is sensational and showcases his flair for playing emotionally volatile characters as Martha’s mean-spirited husband Sean. Molly Parker is magnificent and imbues humanity into Martha’s midwife Eva. And finally, it is hard to not mention Ellen Burstyn. As Martha’s fierce mother Elizabeth, she brings heartfelt emotion to the movie.
Despite its extraordinary performances, however, it’s unfortunate that the pieces of “Pieces of a Woman” don’t always connect perfectly. If there’s one area where the film stumbles, it is in the pacing department. Accompanied by Howard Shore’s tender score, Mundruczó keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the opening sequence. Following the opening scene, however, the film begins to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. The second-half of the film, which portrays the aftermath of tragedy, isn’t quite as engrossing as the opening sequence. Moreover, the film suffers from a misjudged ending. Mundruczó’s decision to end the film on a symbolic note is bold and innovative. However, it doesn’t entirely pay off. It’s an ambiguous finale that leaves viewers with unanswered questions. Consequently, it isn’t entirely effective at bringing the film to a satisfying closure.
On a cautionary note, it is worth mentioning that “Pieces of a Woman” isn’t a movie that is intended for everyone. Given its sensitive themes, the film may not appeal towards mainstream audiences. The film tackles controversial topics such as homebirth, infidelity and emotional trauma that may upset some viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards graphic depictions of childbirth won’t enjoy the movie.
Ultimately, “Pieces of a Woman” is a satisfactory family drama with broken pieces that often don’t fit together. A heartwarming but uneven homebirth drama, it sheds light on provocative topics that are rarely discussed today. One can only hope that it will teach modern-day women an important lesson that giving birth at home without any hospital assistance isn’t worth losing one’s child.