[Content warning: This article contains references to traumatic birth, infant loss and sexual assault. It discusses the plot of the film.]
I almost turned Pieces of a Woman off as soon as it began because Shia LaBouf appears on screen early, and I hadn't realized he was in the movie when I hit play on Netflix. The actor was recently sued by his former partner for "relentless abuse", and I considered shutting the movie off for that reason.
I stayed for Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) and the description: "A heartbreaking home birth leaves a woman grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief."
If this was one of those rare films that dive into the many dimensions of birth and loss and motherhood, I figured I should not let a man's actions keep me from seeing a movie about a woman, written by a woman, Kata Wéber.
Pieces of a Woman highlights why we need more women in writer's rooms. From the moment the movie's birth scene begins the realism delivered by Kirby is shocking and magnetic. The usual recipe for fictional birth on film is replaced with something more like the experience I remember—the belching, the nausea, the parts of birth that don't make you feel like some mother-goddess but rather make you realize your body is so much messier and powerful than you'd ever thought.
Pieces of a Woman | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com
In an agonizing, 24-minute continuous shot, Kirby gives us a perfect performance, capturing how incredible pain, powerful love, ecstatic anticipation and the loss of physical control swirl inside birthing people to create a color of life we've never seen before. But her character's baby lives outside her body for mere moments before she is lost. The death blots out the color of triumph Kirby's character briefly saw, replacing it with an opaque grey that tints her world and relationships for the duration of the film.
The movie is, at times, really hard to watch because it does a good job portraying the reality of giving birth and, perhaps even more importantly, what it is like to deliver a baby only to lose them. When Kirby's Martha returns to work shortly after giving birth to and then losing her daughter, her coworkers stare. Someone is sitting at her desk, and she explains that she's back, having run out of time off.
When she goes to the bathroom we watch as she pulls her office-appropriate pants down, revealing a diaper. She's still bleeding but back at the office, out of time. In America, it doesn't matter if you've got a baby in your arms or a whole in your heart—breastfeeding, bleeding or grieving, you better get back to work.
And when LaBouf's character pressures Kirby's for sex, the scene is an unsettling reminder of how nearly a third of moms (31%) report having postpartum sex sooner than they wanted to.
These parts of the movie are deeply disturbing and moving, and (almost) make up for the many scenes in which characters improbably monologue at each other. But they don't make up for the way the movie glosses over mental health.
Pieces of a Woman does such a great job with that diaper scene, showing us the support that mothers are missing when forced to return to work too soon, but it totally ignores the physiological support Kirby's character would need in order to become the woman she is by the end of the film.
We don't see her speak to a therapist or any mental health professional, but she somehow pulls herself out of her postpartum depression, her grief, her loss, her failing relationship, without assistance. This, is perhaps the scariest part of the movie, for me. I am not worried that the 24-minute birth scene will scare pregnant people. But I am worried that the film perpetuates the idea that women can and should be able to pull themselves out of the pit of despair that follows a traumatic birth and certainly the loss of one's child.
Kirby's character would not be able to go on the way she does, to move past her rage at her midwife and the world, on her own. And women shouldn't have to. The film is truthful in showing how society doesn't give her time to heal her body, but it perpetuates a lie when it suggests she could heal her mind and her soul without support.