In 2019 Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins filmed an entire movie with the single shot technique in 1917 or at least tricked us in believing it was one single shot. The use of this technique turned an ordinary war drama into a masterpiece of storytelling the way the camera followed its protagonists on their mission. Pieces of a Woman uses the single shot technique without tricks in its opening scene that lasts roughly 25 minutes. The scene captures the birth from contractions to the newborn arriving all while Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) experience the joy and agony of the home birth process. It’s a both beautiful and heartbreaking sequence that sets up the tone of the main characters and the aftermath that follows.
When Martha’s contractions start, Sean calls their midwife Barbara who is unavailable at the time. Instead, a different midwife Eva (Molly Parker) comes to aid in the birth of their baby. Everything appears normal except for the nausea Martha is having while the contractions are becoming closer indicating the pushing would start soon. This birth signals a new beginning for Sean and Martha and their relationship goes from pure joy to resentment after the arrival of their baby. When things go wrong, Eva is put to blame for not taking the necessary precautions to call an ambulance.
Pieces of a Woman has a strong foundation thanks to its three main characters. From the two extremes of happiness to all the pain and agony is portrayed in a way that makes the audience feel like it was happening to them. Losing a baby, the moment after birth is an unimaginable feeling that most couldn’t possibly understand and when Vanessa Kirby acts in a way as if she has truly experienced this tragedy before. Her performance is the backbone of this film which carries the story on her back. All she wants is to move on with her life, but Sean and her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) make moving on more difficult.
“Yeah. Like a road trip. You could come with me. We could road trip. You know, we could get a cheap little, a little beater on some land. And I got friends out there that’d help me renovate. It’d be good for us, Martha. It’d be so good for us. Good for you, good for me, good change of scenery.”
Each character goes through their own type of grief and the momentum after the stunning opening scene slows down the story to follow after the loss. Sean’s sobriety with drugs and alcohol is tested while the love he has for Martha evaporates before his eyes because of how she is coping with the loss. Sean is taking the change personally and it’s the evolution that turns Sean to Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook). Elizabeth on the other hand looks for justice to be served for how Eva mishandled the situation. It’s all about the reparations with her instead of comforting her child.
Despite the three powerfully moving performances, Pieces of a Woman struggles to maintain the momentum that is set when we first meet Martha and Sean. The scene is so emotional and chosen because of how a play would be directed. Of course, Pieces of a Woman is based directed on director Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Weber’s stage play; the thought of using the single shot all stems from there. All the credit or at least majority of it has to go to Vanessa Kirby and the amount of research she did in preparation for the role. Studying home births and shadowing midwives put her in the headspace to deliver one of the best performances of the year.
No matter what type of grief a person is going through, the normal response from a person is “I’m sorry for your loss”. That type of response goes in one ear and out the other as Martha attempts to come to terms with the loss of her baby. As everyone blames the midwife, Martha comes to realize that she doesn’t in the final act. Taking place in what feels like a more generic courtroom scene, this is Martha’s first step in finally moving forward with her life. The courtroom is a complete tone shift from the first two acts that lead up to it. The first two acts are plain depressing where the third is used as a hopeful springboard to the future.
Shia and Vanessa have such palpable chemistry on screen together so when the couple implodes from the inside out, it’s truly heartbreaking to witness a once happy couple on the presipace of parenthood self destruct.
“Don’t you want someone to answer for this monstrosity? Martha can’t sort through all of this now. That’s why I thought maybe you might take a little responsibility for a change.”
Pieces of a Woman has a clear cut three act structure. The first two showcase the hope and demise of a loving couple that’s draped in despair and depression and the third is more a prospect of happiness that Martha can have one day again. Everything that the first two acts set up unravels in the third act that doesn’t fit in with the former. This is not meant to be an uplifting film or give the impression of one. It’s an emotionally heavy narrative that relies on its grief to carry it from the starting line to the conclusion. Pieces of a Woman is an honest surreal look into the loss of a child and how a person is expected to handle the loss. A child is but a piece that makes a person whole or who they are especially a mother. Carrying and growing a little human is one of the biggest blessings a woman can experience in her life and it’s understandable how difficult life can be if a loss of that child occurs.
Pieces of a Woman is carried by its lead performance by Vanessa Kirby. It’s a hard story to tell based on the emotion but it’s necessary for people to understand what a person actually goes through should this type of tragedy happen. The single shot opening scene is powerful that brings the film a lot of momentum but unfortunately slows down as the aftermath unfolds. It’s a shame since the film gets off to a magnificent start. Supporting roles are equally as poignant but Kirby’s Martha is a show stealer that deserves award recognition. If I were to rate Pieces of a Woman, I’d rate it a 4 out of 5.
So, tell me guys, have you seen Pieces of a Woman and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
Pieces of a Woman is directed by Kornél Mundruczó is Rated R and has a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. Pieces of a Woman was released on December 30, 2020 and has a runtime of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Pieces of a Woman can be streamed on Netflix.