“[There’s an] overall disinterest in the layers of Martha’s emotions… the film falters because it allows Martha to isolate herself from the audience, as well as her family.”
Pieces of a Woman begins with the portrait of a man: Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, jokes around with co-workers at a job site, insisting that the bridge they are building needs to be completed so that his as-yet-unborn daughter can walk across it. It’s the kind of joke that any expectant father might make, excited to show off the world and his mark on it to his newborn’s curious, admiring mind. On his way out, a co-worker asks about the well-being of Sean’s pregnant partner, Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby). “She’s good,” he says, “Martha’s always good.” It’s small-talk, a perfunctory answer to a polite question, but as the film unfolds, the statement feels symptomatic of Pieces of a Woman’s overall disinterest in the layers of Martha’s emotions, especially her grief. By the end of the film, “Martha’s always good,” feels much more like, “Martha is a puzzle that I can’t figure out, nor do I really want to.”
Martha, like Sean, is introduced at work. However, her introduction offers a much shallower glimpse into her mindset as her daughter’s birth approaches. It’s her last day before her maternity leave begins and her coworkers have thrown a goodbye party. It’s unclear what Martha does for work, just as it’s unclear how she feels about her pregnancy; in the film’s early moments, Kirby gives Martha a kind of nervous reticence that communicates a sense of conflict over the coming birth. As people ask her questions about the baby, Martha seems withdrawn and overwhelmed, but it’s unclear why: is it that she simply doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention? Is the nerve-racking prospect of parenthood finally sinking in? Is she having doubts as to the strength of her maternal instincts? Is this a pregnancy she was never excited for in the first place? It’s hard to tell because we are not given the same sense of Martha’s place in the world as we are for Sean; we have no idea of the life she sees for herself and her child, no sense of what brought her to this moment, no glimpse of her life before pregnancy and tragedy.
This is a problem throughout Pieces of a Woman: Martha, as a person, a woman, a grief-stricken mother, consistently takes a backseat to those around her, so much so that it would seem that all of the pieces of her rest in other people. Sean—who descends back into addiction and channels his emotions into the pursuit of physical numbness—seems to embody her grief, while her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn)—who diligently pursues the criminal case against the allegedly negligent midwife, Eva (Molly Parker)—seems to embody her outrage; they are allowed ample space to express themselves, and we are allowed to see them experience some of the film’s hardest moments. Martha, however, becomes a mystery. In the harrowing 23-minute birthing scene that precedes the film’s title-card, the camera leaves Martha in what will soon become her life’s most defining moments, focusing instead on the midwife’s barely-masked nerves and Sean’s quiet panic. The scene, shot in one take, is garnering a lot of attention, and rightfully so: it captures the subdued chaos of homebirth well. But in a film about grieving, those 23 minutes establish the limits of Martha’s vulnerability. Both the screenplay and the camera seem to lose interest in the viscerality of her experience. She is never again allowed to scream and howl in pain, never again allowed to show the depth of what she feels to her family, to the audience, and even to herself.
Kirby, for her part, does her best with what little of Martha she is given: in her frequent absent stares and stony silences you can sense a deep emotion, although it isn’t always clear exactly which ones it might be. But the film falters because it allows Martha to isolate herself from the audience, as well as her family. Her grieving process is so internalized that it’s almost impossible to tell that she’s enduring at all. Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber (who is Mundruczó’s partner, and who wrote the film based on her own experience with losing their child) seem more concerned with how Martha’s behavior affects those around her, rather than interrogating the behavior itself. Elizabeth and Sean handle Martha’s grief, not because they share in it, but because, in Martha’s emotional absence, they have claimed it as their own. Grieving is not a linear process, of course, and perhaps this is what Mundruczó and Wéber were trying to highlight, but in the process, they erased any distinctive trace of Martha as a woman and as a mother. Her pieces amount not to a whole person, but to a singular tragedy.
Dir: Kornél Mundruczó
Prod: Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker
Release Date: January 7, 2021
Available on: Netflix