After a few short opening scenes, Pieces of a Woman plunges the viewer into a harrowing 23-minute single-take sequence of childbirth gone wrong, as Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) slowly realize that their home birth with midwife Eva (Molly Parker) is not going to end with the joyous event they anticipated. Their baby lives for only a minute or two after being born, and then, 30 minutes in, the movie cuts to its title card.
It’s a brutal way to begin a story that never gets any less downbeat or histrionic, although nothing else in the movie matches the intensity of that first half-hour. The rest of the story follows Martha, Sean and their extended family as they deal with (or, mostly, don’t deal with) the grief of losing the newborn child. The relationship between the more introverted Martha and the volatile Sean, a recovering addict, breaks down almost immediately.
Martha is angry that Sean joins forces with Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) to pursue legal action against Eva, and Sean is angry that Martha decides to donate the baby’s remains to scientific research. Both of them engage in extramarital dalliances, although Sean goes the furthest, sleeping with Martha’s lawyer cousin Suzanne (Succession’s Sarah Snook). They both end up in self-destructive spirals, unable to process what they’ve been through. Sean returns to drugs and drinking, and Martha pushes away anyone who tries to help her.
It’s grim and relentless, and Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo, making his English-language debut, never lets up on the misery, saving the only bright spot for just before the closing credits. Despite what the title might indicate, Sean gets nearly as much focus as Martha, and both LaBeouf and Kirby embrace their characters’ big emotions, with mixed success. Although the early childbirth scene is showy and attention-grabbing, the movie’s most effective moments are quieter, when Mundruczo shows the devastation on the characters’ faces in their most desperate times.
There are a few ostentatious monologues, one from Elizabeth as she talks about her childhood during the Holocaust, and another from Martha during the protracted courtroom finale, but having the characters state their feelings in such a blunt way only obliterates the subtleties that Mundruczo creates elsewhere. Giving over much of the final act to Eva’s trial (which seems to conflate criminal and civil proceedings at times) puts the focus in the wrong place. The core of the movie isn’t about the legal ramifications of medical malpractice, but about the very personal process of grieving.
Pieces of a Woman was written by Mundruczo’s real-life partner Kata Weber, inspired in part by the couple’s own experiences, and many aspects of it ring true. But the melodramatic additions only take away from the characters’ raw, unvarnished truths. As the movie unfolds over the course of many months, Mundruczo marks time by showing the progress of a bridge whose construction Sean has been supervising. While the two sides of the bridge come closer together, the bridge between Martha and Sean crumbles. That forced, unnecessary symbolism is emblematic of the filmmakers’ need to overstate every aspect of what should be an intimate human drama.