I feel like I can’t review “Pieces of a Woman” without first addressing the elephant in the room: the horrific and violent abuse claims against lead actor Shia LaBeouf. They’re so bad that Netflix has taken the man’s name off most ads for the film and, especially considering the subject matter, it seems appropriate. LaBeouf gives an absolutely heartbreaking performance, but the allegations surrounding the actor make some of the material feel very upsetting (in particular, a scene where LaBeouf’s character tries to force unwanted sex on his partner). But to dismiss this film would be unfair to the those who worked so hard both in front of and behind the camera.
The film tells the story of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (LaBeouf) over the course of a year, set off by the new mother’s home birth that ends in an unthinkable tragedy at the hands of a flustered midwife (Molly Parker). The grief begins to overwhelm the young couple, who are coping in very different ways. The first part of the movie highlights the deep love between the two but as the months tick on, their relationship become more fractured. Making things worse is Martha’s domineering mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who never liked Sean and sees her daughter as a failure.
Director Kornél Mundruczó has fashioned a gripping portrait of loss and grief that rests firmly on Kirby’s shoulders. She gives a raw, physical and emotional performance that is truly outstanding. She and Burstyn create a realistic family dynamic which finally explodes when Martha and Elizabeth have a tense standoff over dinner. Mom wants her daughter to deal with the tragedy head-on instead of continuing to bury the pain. It’s one of the strongest scenes in the film, and the two actors make it unforgettable.
The film has a melancholy atmosphere and tone that complements the subject matter. Everything is increasingly bleak and drab as Martha and Sean continue to make a series of bad-to-worse decisions and behaviors that eventually destroy their lives together. They deal with grief in varying ways. She bottles her sadness inside while he lashes out with increased aggression. That’s part of what makes this story such a personal journey and makes it feel achingly authentic.
Despite its flaws (including a lousy ending and numerous metaphors about building bridges and growing apples), “Pieces of a Woman” doesn’t shy away from presenting an unflinching look at deeply wounded humans who are devastated by grief. It’s a tough film to watch, but it’s an effective, intimate look at bereavement, agony, and a pain that no one could possibly heal.