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‘Pieces of a Woman’ looks for silver linings

“Pieces of a Woman”(2020). Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Ilza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Gayle Garfinkle. Director: Kornél Mundruczó. Screenplay: Kata Wéber. Web site. Trailer.

Can something good come out of something bad? It may seem unlikely, but it is possible, provided we’re willing to make the effort to look for it and to recognize the meaning behind the circumstances that gave rise to the situation in the first place. The process may not be easy, and there could be considerable anguish as the process plays out. But those proverbial silver linings do exist, even under the most dire conditions, as examined in the bittersweet new domestic drama, “Pieces of a Woman.”

Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf), are about to have a blessed event. The couple is expecting the arrival of their first child, a girl, to be delivered through a home birth at Martha’s request. As the film opens, Martha has gone into labor, and she and Sean await the arrival of their midwife. However, unexpectedly, the midwife calls to advise them that she’s been detained on another delivery and is sending a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker), to handle the birth.

Upon Eva’s arrival, Martha is getting close to delivery, and her intermediary immediately springs into action. By all indications, everything seems fine – that is, until the child begins its journey down the birth canal. Complications set in, and Eva frantically instructs Sean to call for an ambulance. Within minutes, what should have been a joyful event turns tragic.

In the wake of this calamity, Martha and Sean look to pick up the pieces. They’re left with no easy answers, especially since there are no easy answers to explain exactly what happened. Virtually everyone the couple knows steps in to offer their opinions, regardless of whether or not those views are asked for. The most vocal among them is Martha’s overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who zealously insists on making sure that someone pays for this tragedy. She vigorously pushes Sean and Martha to file a malpractice lawsuit against Eva, a matter to be handled by Martha’s cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a high-powered, high-profile attorney with a prestigious law firm. And, before long, word of the case spreads far and wide, becoming a sensational story on the local news with tabloid-esque coverage about the evil midwife who is labeled an incompetent and deserves to do time.

As she’s about to give birth, mother-to-be Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby, right) consults with her midwife, Eva (Molly Parker, left), in the new domestic drama, “Pieces of a Woman,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Needless to say, the prevalence of such lurid media coverage is not exactly what Martha wants to see and hear, especially since it’s her child at the center of the story. She’s having enough trouble struggling with her grief as it is, let alone having her feelings trodden upon by such distractions and the imposition of others’ opinions on her. That’s particularly true in her dealings with Elizabeth, who constantly tries to tell Martha that she knows what’s best, an attitude that apparently has been present in the mother-daughter relationship for quite some time. In response, Martha tends to withdraw, with many of her actions defying explanation. She shuts down and leads what appears to be a numbed, joyless existence riddled with questionable, inexplicable behavior.

That withdrawal includes her relationship with Sean, who struggles to be comforting and supportive, usually to no avail. But, the more he’s shut out, the more demanding he becomes to be let back in, especially where their sexual relationship is involved. Frustrated, he pursues other avenues of gratification. But, even worse, he falls off the wagon; as a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for years, he tosses his progress aside, especially when he sees his efforts go unappreciated, feelings fueled by some of the long-standing animosity that Elizabeth holds against her daughter’s “inferior” choice of a partner.

It should be obvious that a tragic situation is allowed to turn toxic. But are things truly as bad as they seem? Could it be possible that there may be some silver linings deeply buried amidst this morass of sadness and negativity? And what would it take to unearth it? That may take a miracle even greater than that of birth. But, if the principals are able to see their way clear, there’s no telling what they might find – for better or worse.

In the wake of a personal tragedy, businesswoman Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) returns to work in an effort to get her life back together in director Kornél Mundruczó’s latest, “Pieces of a Woman.” Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Years ago, I heard a story about a couple who lost their firstborn under circumstances not unlike those in this film. The young parents, needless to say, were devastated and had difficulty overcoming their grief. How could such a tragedy befall them, especially when they took every precaution to safeguard the well-being of their child?

After a prolonged period of despair, they finally consulted a counselor, who attempted to reframe their situation and put it into a new perspective. He observed how the tragedy brought the couple closer together, perhaps more so than at any prior point in their relationship. It also brought them closer to other family members and to friends, as everyone rallied around the couple in mutual support. However, in the midst of their grieving, the parents were so overcome that they hadn’t taken note of this change, despite being the beneficiaries of it. And, now that they had it pointed out to them, it was as if a bell went off, their mood changing dramatically. Suddenly they felt lighter and even blessed. Although their child lived only briefly, they could feel the love she left them with, as if a tangible blanket of grace had been placed over them. This gift may have come from someone who couldn’t overtly recognize its impact, and it arrived in the wake of her departure, but it was palpable and had a lasting effect. The couple’s gratitude prompted their love for one another to grow stronger than ever, and they went on to become the happy parents of three children.

Even though the conditions of this couple were somewhat different from those of Martha and Sean, the meaning behind the child’s passing here could be seen in a comparable light. Martha and Sean’s tragedy was not without purpose, as difficult as that may be to see and accept. What it served, though, would not have been possible were it not for the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our beliefs to manifest the reality we experience. But, many might rightfully contend, what could possibly be gained by using our beliefs in the realization of such a tragedy?

Overbearing mother Elizabeth Weiss (Ellen Burstyn) seeks to control virtually every aspect of her daughter’s life in “Pieces of a Woman,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

For instance, consider the partners, their attributes and the nature of their relationship going in to this situation. Sean indeed seems to provide the kind of care and nurturing that Martha needs at the time of the child’s birth. But, as his behavior in the wake of her death shows, he occasionally exhibits selfish and intolerant tendencies. Likewise, Martha is walled off from those around her, even those who might like to help. It’s an attitude that almost makes her appear cold and aloof, even though it’s more likely a stoic front to conceal the grief she’s unwilling or unable to deal with. If these qualities are emerging now, isn’t it possible they might reappear during their time as parents? Don’t these attributes need to be addressed before they consider having children again? Moreover, don’t they need to examine them before even considering whether they want to stay together as a couple? What child would want to willingly be a part of such a dysfunctional family? In many regards, the child’s death could be seen as forcing their hand, prompting Martha and Sean to deal with their unresolved issues before moving on to bigger undertakings like staying together for the long term or considering the possibility of becoming parents again.

But the issues don’t stop there. Martha also must deal with her relationship with Elizabeth in a variety of areas. For instance, it appears that Martha has a history of backing off from her mother’s constant nagging about being perfect in everything she does. Rather than confront Elizabeth’s niggling control freak tendencies, Martha appears to brush them off, despite the fact that the mounting pressure they create is obviously getting to her.

What’s more, Martha also appears bothered by Elizabeth’s incessant penchant to find scapegoats for her daughter’s troubles, be it Sean, Eva or whoever is most readily available to blame for things gone wrong. Elizabeth’s ruthless, cut-throat attitude and quiet but ravenous desire to go for the jugular to obtain “satisfaction” and “compensation” at a critical time such as this, when Martha is seeking to reconcile her feelings about her child’s death, are inappropriate at best, if not wholly reprehensible at worst. Yet Martha generally keeps mum, something that, again, she appears to have been doing for quite some time.

High-powered, high-profile attorney Suzanne (Sarah Snook, standing) seeks to prosecute a malpractice lawsuit against a midwife whose actions are called into question in a tragic home birth in “Pieces of a Woman.” Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Again, the central event in this story could be seen as a springboard for pushing Martha into addressing these unacceptable circumstances, conditions that she has allowed to persist for far too long. The various “pieces” that constitute Martha’s being have been seriously damaged (and by more than just her child’s death), leaving her in danger of falling apart. To survive, though, she must find a way to reconstitute herself in a healthy way. It’s a shame that it has taken a tragedy such as this to prompt that process. But, if we refuse to listen to our hearts and take the steps needed to bring about such a resolution, sometimes drastic measures are called for. In such cases, we must thus be sure to show gratitude to those who help us to make such outcomes possible, no matter how young or old they may be.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when parents watch a newborn slip away in the first few minutes after birth, an event fraught with all manner of fallout. While the film’s opening 27-minute single-shot birthing sequence is captivating, the picture fails to consistently maintain the same levels of intensity and depth thereafter, sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating and sometimes meandering. The film’s explorations into the psychological issues that should have provided the focus for the balance of the picture never quite reach the depth that they probably should have, despite having a suitable pretext to make that happen. These drawbacks are nevertheless compensated for by the fine performances of Kirby, Burstyn and LaBeouf, as well as some of the film’s intriguing subplots. In all, though, director Kornel Mundruczó’s finished product leaves viewers somewhat wanting for something more substantive given the project’s profound subject matter. The film is available for online streaming.

“Pieces of a Woman” has earned its share of awards season buzz, especially in the acting categories. Thus far it has captured lead actress nominations for Kirby in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award competitions. In addition, Burstyn has received a Critics Choice Award nomination for supporting actress. The film seems destined for further accolades as awards season plays out.

It’s often been rhetorically asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s a perfectly valid question, and there are no easy answers. But, in many instances, there’s something about the scenario that’s pertinent to the individuals in question, and they must be the ones to sort out the situation. It may involve some kind of life lesson. It might lead to the resolution of a long-standing unaddressed conundrum. It could even relate to the exposure of one of those famous silver linings. But, no matter what may be behind such situations, we must never give up hope and our belief in it. It could spell the difference between catastrophe and a new beginning.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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