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Arts & Life

'Pieces Of A Woman' Captures The Experience Of Childbirth And Grief

Benjamin Loeb
From left to right: Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha in 'Pieces of a Woman.'

The new movie Pieces of a Woman is about childbirth gone bad and how a young woman copes with her grief. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, the sight of these experiences from a woman's point of view is a revelation.

Birth sequences are hardly new to the movies. From the flutter and chaos of Melly birthing her baby in Gone with the Wind to Ricky Ricardo’s comic anxiety over Lucy in I Love Lucy to hundreds of others, a child coming into the world is pretty standard stuff in movies. Maybe the most graphic birth film is the 1959 short Window Water Baby Moving, by the late Denver avant-gardist Stan Brakhage – but it’s entirely from a man’s point of view.

The long birth sequence near the start of Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman is a different kettle of fish.

These scenes are about the experience of a woman. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) goes into labor at home. Her male partner Sean (Shia LaBoeuf) is fully with her. He calls the midwife, holds Martha, comforts her, helps her into and out of the bathtub. But it’s obvious that this birthing is fundamentally Martha’s experience.

Martha endures the pain of contractions; she’s the one who yells out. I have not witnessed a birth in person; friends who have say they’re never seen the experience captured so richly.

But a problem for such a startling opening is what does a movie do for the next hundred minutes. The publicity for the film reveals that the birth does not go well, so it’s no secret, and what the film has left is Martha’s grief, which of course is deep. She gets no help; Sean grows impatient and demanding, and he borders on abusive. And Martha has an intrusive mother (Ellen Burstyn), full of self-serving advice and demands for what Martha should do. No one seems to listen to her or pay attention to what she may need or want.

It’s a shock that the midwife is prosecuted and also sued by Martha’s family. In the birth scenes, the midwife seems careful, attentive and competent. She checks the baby’s heart rate several times during labor, and when she suspects trouble, she tells Sean to call the medics. But Martha’s mother wants vengeance, and so Martha has to thread her way through the terrible maze of what others want and her own grief, which leaves her weakened and easily pushed around.

Through all of this, you can’t get the stunning birth images out of your mind, which is probably a good filmmaking choice. That’s what’s in Martha’s head; it’s not an event that she can shake. She can’t get over it and move on the way she’s told to do. So, we don’t get that escape either; we’re with her and when she finally begins to find herself, we understand how grief and memory have dominated her.

At first, I distrusted the title of the movie. Pieces of a Woman summons up dozens of slasher films about women chopped up by insane male villains, and we’ve had enough of women characters as really just a lot of body parts. Here, though, Martha’s job is to reassemble herself, to take the fragments of herself and her life and make herself whole – and that’s a more interesting picture than a woman left in fragments.

Actor Vanessa Kirby has been praised for her work in Pieces of a Woman, and she deserves it. She carries the film, and after that intense exterior action of the birth sequence, the movie is about Martha on the inside. And with small gestures and expressions, Kirby embodies that interiority. Martha may be hobbled by grief, but all through the movie, you can see that life is cooking beneath her surface. And so, when she gets herself together, it may be a surprise, but you also know she’s worked for it.

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