Pieces of a Woman asks a question we never want to answer: how would I handle the death of a child? The movie provides answers to that question through the perspectives of the mother, the father and the mother-in-law. The acting in the movie is exceptional, and the childbirth scene is a riveting scene to behold. After the initial tragedy, the movie becomes a character study in grief, and is effective because the performances are so honest. Recommended.
In Pieces of a Woman, the young parents have to deal with the tragedy of their baby dying just minutes after being born. I can relate to their plight to a certain degree. My son was born very prematurely. He spent his first months in the NICU and came home after having a shunt implanted in his head. During those months, several babies next to him in the NICU passed away. Fortunately, my son is still here twenty years later, making my life interesting. I can’t imagine him not being here today, but when he was still just a few months old, I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. For most preemies, life is touch-and-go, setbacks come out of nowhere and you wonder if your child will ever come home. For my wife and I, our son’s life started out tragically but evolved into a triumph. We never had to find out what life would be like without him. For Martha and Sean, tragedy comes just when they are in awe of their baby’s existence. To be holding life in your hands only for it to be snatched away so quickly would be absolutely crushing for anyone. The movie does not begin at that moment, though.
We see Martha (Vanessa Kirby) at a party with her coworkers at the office. She smiles and pretends to enjoy things, but when she’s alone, she is definitely glad it is over. Parties with coworkers can be trying (mandatory fun, anyone?), but is that what she is feeling? Martha looks very pregnant, so maybe she’s just happy to be going home, where she can get off her feet. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), her boyfriend, leaves his job at a drill site so that he can meet Martha and his mother-in-law at a car dealership. Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), Martha’s mother, is buying them a brand-new SUV. Sean is miffed because he has money and can pay for it, and believes his mother-in-law’s agenda is to exert control over their lives by buying things for them. He may be right, and Martha seems to agree with him, laughing at his putdowns of her mom. Sean and Martha ultimately accept the generous gift and head home.
From what we are shown before tragedy strikes, Martha and Sean get along well. Pictures on their refrigerator are a testament to their happiness. They are mismatched sociologically: Martha is upper-class and Sean is working class. They have a nice walk-up in downtown Boston, so they have the means for a comfortable life. I imagined they met at a bar, the likeliest place where two people from different walks of life would hook-up and settle down. Not long after arriving home, Martha begins having contractions and asks Sean to distract her while they wait for the midwife to arrive. (Martha and Sean have planned for a home birth.) Sean’s affection for dad jokes implies that he would be a good dad. He’s supportive of Martha, doing everything she asks. The movie never makes clear who’s idea the home birth was, although I would assume it was Martha’s. Unfortunately, things begin to go wrong at the outset.
Martha’s midwife is in the middle of another delivery, so Eva comes in her place. Eva (Molly Parker) seems capable, taking measurements and checking on the baby’s heart rate. Martha is experiencing a lot of pain, which is understandable, given that pain medications are not part of a home birth. When the baby’s heart rate appears to drop, she encourages Martha to deliver the baby. At one point she has Martha push on her side to alleviate the baby’s distress. When the baby is delivered, she looks and behaves fine. But then the baby stops breathing. Eva asked Sean to call 911, and the ambulance arrived quickly. Unfortunately, the baby could not be resuscitated.
The childbirth scene is a piece of bravura filmmaking by director Kornél Mundruczó and the three actors. Vanessa Kirby has been getting most of the recognition for that scene, but it works because all three actors do exceedingly well. Yes, even Shia LaBeouf. Molly Parker plays Eva as confident but apprehensive. She takes the situation seriously and does everything she can to keep the baby alive, to no avail. The scene is filmed all in one take, a single camera documenting events as unobtrusively as possible. Scenes that are one long take usually come off as a director’s gimmick, but here it is convincing and believable.
The movie picks up weeks after the death of the baby. Martha has to return to work because she has run out of maternity leave. Coworkers were surprised to see her back, but she really didn’t have a choice. She elicits stares from everyone, making her return extremely awkward. She has to ask a gobsmacked coworker to leave her office as well. Outside of work, she has to face other aspects of life that force her to confront her perceived failure over and over again. She has to sit next to children on the subway. When she happens upon a young girl at a clothing store, she starts lactating. She has to put frozen vegetables on her breasts when she gets home because her body is geared towards nurturing a child. She seems aloof and disconnected. Sean is having a tough time, and pleads with Martha to talk to him and comfort him. She’s still processing what happened, though, and does not have the capacity to deal with Sean’s feelings as well as her own. Life may go on in spite of the inexplicable, but that doesn’t mean that a person like Martha can simply grieve and move on.
The movie makes a subtle point about people judging Martha over how she is processing the death of her baby. Both Sean and her mother expect Martha to behave differently than she is, as if everyone should process grief according to Kubler Ross. The movie asks us, is Martha grieving the right way? If not, then what is the right way to grieve? From her mother’s perspective, Martha should be furious with anger, determined to send Eva to prison for her incompetence. Sean presumably expects Martha to be crying all the time, wanting to be held, wanting to talk about the experience. Is Sean correct?
Both Sean and Elizabeth are aghast that Martha wants to donate her baby’s body to science. They insist on burying the baby, and that Martha is being heartless. Martha feels that burying her baby would accomplish nothing, but she goes along because they plead with her to do so. Later, when she is looking at the design for the baby’s grave stone, she states that the name of the baby is spelled wrong. Sean says that it is a little thing, to which Martha gets upset and leaves. If burying the baby is so important to Sean and Elizabeth, why isn’t getting her name right just as important? With her feelings trivialized, Martha decides to follow-through with her original plan.
Taken objectively, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about how Martha is grieving, whether she is grieving the right way or the wrong way. How she deals with her tragedy is really up to her. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Martha acts like someone in shock. She also has to deal with being a failure as a mother everywhere she goes. People in society judge women on whether they are able to bear children successfully. When things don’t go according to plan, whether it is a miscarriage or a sudden death after birth, women feel ashamed and judged that they failed at something they are biologically designed to do.
Sean and Martha visit a doctor who says that he can’t find a reason for why the baby died. Sean presses the doctor, telling him that they want his expert opinion because he’s an expert. When he repeats that the tests are inconclusive, Sean screams in anger. Thankfully, the doctor knew well enough to not offer solace in the form of “bad things happen to good people”, which is exactly the case.
While Martha internalizes and processes her grief, Sean falls apart. Their fun relationship seemingly over, Sean tries to reestablish a physical connection with Martha in a scene that could easily be described as sexual assault. Sean isn’t a man of sensitivity, so his brute-force way of trying to have sex with Martha turns out badly for him. I’m guessing that the two had a fun sex life before the pregnancy. Maybe their relationship was based only on fun and good times. Now that their relationship is defined by tragedy, the two have no means to connect with each other anymore. Sean falls off the wagon, drinking and doing drugs. He also has an affair with Martha’s cousin, the lawyer who will be representing them for their case against Eva. If Sean is upset by Martha becoming cold and distant, his way of dealing with his grief, by trying to drown it in bad behavior, is no better.
At a family brunch at Elizabeth’s house, she makes an impassioned speech for Martha to fight for her child, and punish the midwife for the child’s death. Elizabeth mentioned how her mother hid her in the floorboards when she left to get food to eat. Ellen Burstyn’s performance in this scene may earn her an Oscar nomination, but for me, the gist of the speech was all wrong. Fighting on behalf of a dead child is not the same as fighting to keep a baby alive. Elizabeth believes that Martha should demand justice for her baby’s death, but Martha doesn’t feel vengeful. After Martha leaves, Elizabeth sees an opportunity to get rid of Sean. She tells him to go back to Seattle, and gives him a blank check as an enticement. As bad mothers-in-law go, Ellen Burstyn’s Elizabeth is one of the worst.
In the last act, Martha testifies at Eva’s trial. She answers all of the questions as best as she can, but begins to break down when she’s cross-examined by the defense. She leaves the courtroom and remembers that a local camera store has negatives that haven’t been developed. The pictures were taken by Sean after their baby was born, and provides Martha with evidence that she was a mother, and that she (and Sean) loved their child. The pictures finally give Martha a way to grieve for the loss of her baby. In a scene that is somewhat inexplicable but very effective, Martha returns to the court and addresses everyone. She believes that Eva did her best to keep her child alive, that there was no incompetence. Martha states that she doesn’t believe in sending Eva to jail because that would mean that Martha believes she can somehow be compensated for the loss of her baby. How the trial resolved itself is not shown.
In a peculiar twist, Martha is shown calling after a young girl. We don’t get a clear view of Martha or the child, and instead are forced to look at a tree. I’m guessing that this scene indicates that Martha eventually has a child and moves out of the city, but in a movie with so much emotional honesty, this scene felt unnecessary and cryptic.
In the time since this movie was released, Shia LaBeouf’s career was effectively put on hold by several women revealing his abusive behavior while in a relationship with him. He addressed the allegations by saying he would seek help, and then disappeared from view. Obviously, these revelations could not have come at a worse time for him. He was getting good notices for his performance here, where his years spent taking chances with edgier, lower budget material was finally paying off. Unlike earlier in his career, his performance in Pieces of a Woman proved (to me at least) that he can act convincingly in a drama. With his public image tarnished so badly, Netflix stopped including his face in the still images for the movie on its service. I hope he gets the help he needs, and can somehow make amends for those he has wronged.
Vanessa Kirby continues her streak of winning performances. Several consider her portrayal as Martha in Pieces of a Woman as her breakout performance. To fans of The Crown, her performance here is more of a confirmation than a surprise. She’ll probably win an Oscar nomination for her performance, but I think people’s mixed reactions to the movie after the childbirth scene may keep her from winning the award. She’s definitely put us all on notice for whatever she does next.
Lastly, while I have nothing against couples who decide on a home birth, this movie may give them pause. At home, there is no access to life-saving equipment. If something goes wrong, for the mother or the baby, it could prove fatal. I’m glad for doctors and nurses who kept my son alive until he was able to come home. I don’t know where my wife and I would be without him, and I’m glad I never had to find out.