Pieces of a Woman’s prologue is among the most intense and painful opening sequences in recent times. The film’s protagonist, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), goes through labour while her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) does all he can to calm her, his anxious, nauseous, and hurting lover. Their midwife, Barbara, becomes unavailable due to an emergency and sends Eva (Molly Parker) as her replacement. The following stretch of events is brilliantly captured in a single shot by director Kornél Mundruczó, who makes the scene look and feel like a candid video of a real home birth.
The film relies largely on the performances, and Mundruczó has secured the services of the right actors. Vanessa Kirby (best known as Princess Margaret in The Crown) delivers an affecting performance, and her pain seems to radiate into our homes from within the television. Shia LaBeouf pretends to be composed, while still being a father who fears the worst. When the worst really happens, what follows is a harrowing ride that transforms the lives of this couple forever.
Shattered by grief, the young mother struggles to accept and endure an unimaginable loss in silence. And this odyssey of pain plays on. Over months and seasons, the relationship between the couple rots, as the personal disaster sends the two into different trajectories. Sean breaks his six-year-long sobriety and turns into an abusive partner, while Martha cannot or rather is not allowed to forget her haunting past. It is an excruciating watch, literally gnawing at your insides when a cold and desolate society emotionally hunts down a broken woman.
When French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously described cinema as “truth, 24 frames per second”, Pieces of a Woman is what he probably meant. Even when the film seems to meander, it seems deliberate, and reflective of the reality of life. With Vanessa as its emotional centre of gravity, the film is heart-breaking in its moments.
At the same time, there are metaphors here too if you can catch the subtleties. Sean as a construction worker can’t bridge the gulf between him and his wife. Apples and seeds feature heavily signifying rebirth.The film could have been better, like so many other great cinematic experiences we talk about. Ideally, it should have focussed on the mourning mother more—making it entirely her story. But despite any faults, the film has its heart in the right place.