When Martha and Sean’s baby dies shortly after her home birth, the months that follow see relationships around her fracture as Martha tries to navigate her grief.
When Martha goes into labour, she and her husband Sean find their chosen midwife stuck with another birthing mother. They’re sent Eva instead, an unexpected development but not an insurmountable one. The birth is painful but proceeding normally until suddenly it’s not – the baby’s heart rate drops and Eva (Molly Parker) is trying to keep her fear under wraps, aiming for that level of urgency that neither panics the parents nor passes them by. (Parker is first rate, carrying with her an air of not quite fitting in. Eva knows what to do but somehow doesn’t gel with this situation and this couple; she’s always an uneasy presence.)
Their baby girl is born and all seems well, until a few moments later when she turns blue. While Sean runs outside to flag down the ambulance, Eva tries to revive the baby, but it’s in vain.
The 23-minute, single-take labour and birth scene isn’t at the very beginning of Pieces Of A Woman. First we meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) at her work maternity leaving party, and her husband Sean (Shia LeBoeuf) at his job in construction building a new bridge across Boston’s river, before the two of them take ownership of a baby-friendly people carrier bought for them by Martha’s wealthy mother.
That long scene is so intimate, animalistic and free, though – as we intrude on their cocoon within their already private world – that it makes what comes later even more excruciating to watch, as Martha re-enters an ordered outside world ill-prepared for her shocked sadness.
Despite me starting to watch Pieces Of A Woman at midnight to avoid lockdown movie-watching interruptions, I made the decision to pause it after the birth, something that in a cinema setting would’ve been impossible. Would I have done what I never do and walk out? I don’t know, but after that wracking first half-hour I took advantage of home viewing and turned it off for a few hours.
Kirby is exceptional in this scene and indeed throughout the film, going through the motions of life while hiding in plain sight in a glass carapace. Stuck in that wasteland between life and death, she ignores Sean’s increasingly desperate pleas to think of his grief too, and almost seems to want him to leave, so she can draw a line under their relationship while she trudges on alone.
Often she’s stalking through the snowy city streets in her scarlet coat, which acts as a double sign: for people to give her a wide berth and for Martha to declare she’s still here, deal with it. Who wants to talk about death to someone who has just lost someone? Even if you’ve been through it yourself what you wanted to hear might not be what they want to hear.
It’s often said that old-style grieving rituals were best, making death part of life, with bodies kept at home before burial and a year in mourning clothes. But while they may have worked for some people, traditions also corral grieving people into behaviour acceptable to society.
Martha is unnerving because she doesn’t care what anyone thinks any more. And while her family around her are also grieving, her mother Elizabeth is expecting a lot so quickly – the on-screen dates that punctuate this film are really only a few weeks from the birth.
Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) has her reasons, and at a big family lunch weeks after the baby’s death she delivers a monologue, explaining why she feels Martha needs to tackle her grief in a different way. It’s a compelling story, quickly followed by a shocking conversation a few minutes later between Elizabeth and Sean, where both of them have also started to shed society’s expectations. One on one, they talk bluntly about Elizabeth’s dislike of him.
Martha and Sean, her mother and sister, her brother-in-law and lawyer cousin Suzanne; they are one family but there is no one for Sean despite his fling with Suzanne (LaBoeuf is excellent as a man underestimated by the family and then shut out by them).
This is an intimate drama about the kind of personal event that reverberates far wider, though we see little of the rest of their world. Martha carries on with life (she has to go back to work the next month because her leave has run out) but we only see that life outside in terms of their loss, from her mum’s friend with over-enthusiastic public displays of consolation, to the little girl Martha sees in a department store who triggers the letdown of her milk.
It seems that Martha alone is able to navigate what has happened to them because she cuts herself free. Sean fights for her attention, in one desperate scene pushing her into sex, and he also needs to literally move on, with or without her.
While Pieces of a Woman is profoundly moving, and often upsetting – the last film that made me feel so sad and also jittery was also about grief and survival in the face of other people’s disapproval – it does take some odd turns.
As the film progresses it goes in increasingly heavily on imagery, particularly apples, which I rather liked though will jar for many. Martha is always eating them after her baby dies, seemingly the only sustenance she gets. They’re a symbol of life anyway, and (thanks to the Garden of Eden myth) of life going its own way in the face of disapproval. A rotten apple on the side signifies her and Sean’s decaying relationship; later she grows seedlings in her fridge from the pips.
The bridge Sean was helping to build becomes another marker on her journey; on her walks and runs through Boston she stops to watch as the two sections move together to meet in the middle, presumably signifying her own coping and closure, as her relationship with Sean is in tatters.
These images are tonally very different from each other and even more different from the bulk of the film.
I was less taken with the courtroom drama, as Eva is prosecuted by the state for her actions at the birth. The mentions of the case as it approaches work well: Martha doesn’t seem to care about it either, it’s just something else going on, pushed by people who try to make her want it as much as them. However the actual courtroom scenes feel out of place and sit uneasily with what comes before.
The last scene is almost dreamlike, and while I want to believe, I suspect that’s what it is – more a symbol of hope for the future than a concrete one.
Read my article on the ending: Pieces Of A Woman: the final bit of the jigsaw