2021 Oscar Reviews: Pieces of a Woman

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

Pieces of a Woman

1 nomination for Best Actress (Vanessa Kirby)

Geeeeeez that was a VERY hard movie to watch. For real, I am not someone who ever throws out trigger warnings, but I’ll use one here for the first time ever. TRIGGER WARNING: Difficult pregnancy, loss, grief, etc.

Maybe I’m extra sensitive right now because I watched this film around the same time that I was wrapping up a bunch of baby gifts for someone very close to me whose due date is 3 weeks away. But the first 30 minutes of this film sent me into a very real and deep fit of anxiety. Honestly. If you’d like to curb teen pregnancy rates, just require every middleschooler to watch the beginning of this film. After a couple quick scenes to introduce our main characters (expecting couple Sean and Martha, as played by Shia LeBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in her nominated role,) we enter a long single-shot scene of Martha going into a difficult labor. I won’t reveal waht exactly happens, but it is tense and scary. Not having even been pregnant myself, I can’t comment as to how real the scene was, and how much of it was terrifying to me because I’m unfamiliar with labor versus terrifying because I knew from film blurbs that something was likely to go very wrong. But either way, it was very, very intense. Martha is clearly uncomfortable. Sean is scared but touchingly sweet and supportive. And the camera never looked away. It was extremely effective filmmaking that portrayed childbirth much more realistically than most films, which stay on just the mom’s face, or keep us as a strategic respectful distance behind a curtain. Martha’s body is going through some crazy stuff. Her belly is out. Veins in her neck are popping. She sounds so miserable. I wish I could find a screenshot of a part where she’s laying on the ground, holding on to Sean’s leg. Something about that shot got me. We’re look at real body parts, and the whole thing felt much more human and honest than any birth scene I’ve seen before.

After this 20+ minute long real-time scene, a whopping 30 minutes into the film, our title finally pops onto the screen. That crazy intense roller coaster was just the introduction. Lord only knows what else was to come. Partially because I had something else to do, but also partially because this 30 minutes had stressed me out so much, I had to take a break at this point. I was not looking forward to returning the next day for the rest of the film. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the countless woman I know who have had very real, very traumatic isues regarding motherhood. Women who can’t conceive, who miscarry, whose babies don’t survive childbirth, who suffer from postpartum depression. Half the population is female, andsupposedly 82% of them give birth at some point, meaning a stunning percent of the population watching this movie are likely to relate heavily to this movie, and will likely have trouble watching it. I wanted to protect everyone I know from this film. Not because it is bad, but because it will hurt.

I was expecting the rest of the film to be just as difficult as the beginning. “Pieces of a Woman” made me picture someone who is shattered and struggling to get herself back together. In my experience, women’s issues are frequently swept under the rug or dismissed. They’re uncomfortable. We don’t acknowledge them. We’re not open about them. We’re talking about basic stuff like menstruation (we’re not supposed to openly talk about Tampons, for example), but we’re also absolutely talking about significantly more traumatic topics, like sexual assault. Ask any man how many of his female friends and family have been raped, and he likely won’t be able to tell you a single one. Because we don’t talk about the shit women go through. Even after the #metoo movement. The same goes for other common traumas such as miscarriages or postpartum depression. Women feel isolated. They need to reach out, to grieve, to heal. And yet society isn’t big on talking about issues that are bummers. In my own life, when a friend tells me about something she’s suffered through, I respond by trying to be supportive and understanding, but after that… what? Nobody knows what to say or do. The next time we hang out, we likely won’t mention it again (“Hey, how’s that miscarriage thing working out for you?” just doesn’t fly.) And that’s in the few cases where someone does try to be open about it; in most cases women grieve alone, in silence, bottling up the pain.

That was what I was expecting the rest of the film to be about, and so I steeled myself for it. If those first 30 minutes had hit me so hard, then I assumed that the rest would be just as effectively gut-wrenching. I thought we were going watch this woman struggling alone in thought of her grief while the rest of the world carries on around her as if nothing had happened. I was expecting scenes where she’s all saddo and then other people saying hurtful things like “Oh get over it, that was like a month ago!” But instead the film did the opposite. Martha is kinda moving on, and other people are trying to force her to fixate and fight. Other people are more obsessed with her own loss than she is. Sean completely crumbles, but she deals with it. Her mother is constantly going after her and dredging back up the pain, making strong demands about what, exactly, Martha should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s very odd to me. What I don’t know, as an outsider, is how real this is. Have I been getting it wrong? Is this film a decent representation? Cuz I dunno… I know plenty of people who have experienced loss, myself included, but I’ve seldom see it work that other people go out of their way to keep retraumatizing them. I didn’t find any of this particularly compelling or interesting, either. I don’t know how these two pieces of movie belonged to the same movie. How could something so perfectly executed be followed by something so… frankly… dull? I was bored. The rest of the movie was boring. And I just didn’t care about any of our characters anymore.

Eventually, at the very end, we get back to a point inthe plotline that more directly correlates to what happened in the traumatic birth scene. My attention returned at this scene, mostly because it brought back memories of the compelling intro, but also because they reintroduced actress Molly Parker, who was absolutely fantastic as our midwife. There is a shot in the labor scene where she glances in a mirror briefly, and in that brief flash my blood ran cold. Parker was so good I wish she’d scored herself a best supporting nomination. But back to the scene… the movie suddenly got interesting again, but it didn’t get good again. It’s a classic case of a courtroom scene that operates nothing like a real courtroom. I know it’s silly, but… if you’re trying to present an Oscar-calibur movie, your courtroom scenes can’t have the judge saying things like, “Well this is highly unusual, but I’ll allow it!” That crap just took me out of the movie completely.

Pieces of a Woman is only nominated for its lead’s acting, and I think it’s a well-deserved nomination for Vanessa Kirby. The birth scene alone was award-worthy. I mean, like I already said, I have never experienced childbirth, but I was feeling her pain. All of the acting was great. Say what you’d like about LeBeouf as a person, but the dude can act. And Ellen Burstyn was great as the mom. But why no Best Picture nomination? Why hasn’t anyone really seen or heard of this movie, even though it contains easily the most epic and effective scene from any of this year’s contenders? Tough to tell. Maybe other viewers agreed with my assesment that the rest of the movie drops off. Maybe it’s straight-up sexism because nobody wants to watch the sad lady movie. Or maybe just not enough people saw it because it’s such a relatable and hard watch that half its potential audience (the half for whom it is most likely to resonate) just have no desire to put themselves through that. I haven’t looked at any other reviews yet, so presumably I’ll find my answer there. But if you’re interested in my personal opinion: first 30 minutes deserve every award. Next 90 minutes were totally meh. The 30 could not carry the remaining 90.

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