TIFF 2020: “Pieces of a Woman” struggles with the many faces of grief

TIFF Pieces of a Woman "Pieces of a Woman" (TIFF 2020)

Vanessa Kirby shines in Kornél Mundruczó’s otherwise uneven drama about a couple cratering from the loss of their baby.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Most parents can relate to the great anticipation felt by Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), the expectant couple at the center of Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. As the delivery date of their unborn child approaches, they celebrate with a baby shower, framed ultrasound photos, and a newly decorated room. Sean can even be seen practicing his dad jokes. But what happens when things don’t go according to plan?

Before long, the big night arrives. As is their wish, they arrange a home birth with the help of a midwife named Eva (played by Molly Parker). The process starts out well enough, with the baby showing a stable heartbeat and Martha experiencing the normal signs of labor. Though there’s a brief moment of worry requiring Martha to shift her position, the crying baby is eventually born to the parents’ relief. 

Their joy quickly turns to distress, however, when the baby suddenly turns blue. Frantic, Eva orders Sean to call an ambulance and desperately tries to keep the baby alive. But her efforts are in vain, as the newborn baby dies shortly after.

This devastating low point for the leads proves to be the morbid highlight of the film, as Mundruczó directs the failed home birth with a visceral sense of realism. Flitting between characters and throughout the house in an incredible 30-minute long take, he makes you feel involved in this excruciatingly tense experience. 

Mundruczó’s execution of this bravura sequence is truly worth the price of admission on its own. And he’s aided greatly by Kirby, who gives an acting masterclass of committed physicality and emotional depth, as her character writhes in agony.

Ultimately, Pieces of a Woman falls short of the promise of its most crucial scene.

For better or worse, Mundruczó and Kirby maintain that verisimilitude throughout the subsequent narrative, which includes a pending criminal case against Eva. As expected, the ordeal traumatizes Martha, who becomes despondent as she tries to move on with her life. Meanwhile, her once loving relationship now seems beyond repair. 

The aftermath of the central tragedy sets up several interesting plotlines surrounding Martha’s grief, her troubled relationship, and a highly publicized court case. But unlike Kirby’s nuanced performance, Kata Wéber’s script struggles to dig deeper into the story’s premise. Apart from a few scenes where Sean attempts to rekindle some sexual desire, there is little by way of true introspection or dialogue on how the loss has impacted the relationship. Likewise, details about Eva and the legal proceedings are disappointingly scarce.

The shallowness of the screenplay is unfortunate when considering the exciting lineup of actors involved. Though he doesn’t get enough to do, Labeouf is stealthily brilliant in the latest of his recent string of challenging roles. Ellen Burstyn is also typically captivating as Martha’s demanding mother. 

Viewers will likely leave the film wishing there was more from the smaller supporting roles too. After last year’s Marriage Story made its lawyers such a memorable part of that film’s fractured marriage, it’s disappointing to see Sarah Snook (playing the prosecutor) effectively relegated to intermittent reassurances that “You’re going to win this case.” Parker’s empathetic performance as the unlucky midwife also suggests a whole other character study ready to be explored.

Ultimately, Pieces of a Woman falls short of the promise of its most crucial scene. In keeping with its title, however, it admittedly succeeds as a showcase for Kirby’s harrowing lead turn. But its fascinating story begs for a more ensemble-driven approach. In foregrounding her character’s individual experience and feelings, it struggles to fully examine the other faces of grief. 

Pieces of a Woman Trailer:

Shane Slater
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