Pieces of a Woman takes a topic that might have been routine in other hands and, through the alchemy of theater, turns it into something startlingly new. Vanessa Kirby plays Martha, a young Massachusetts woman caught between her middle-class husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and the expectations of her patrician mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn).
The scene that sets the story in motion has already become something of a cinema legend. For nearly 30 minutes, a single long take captures the homebirth and accidental death of Martha’s first child. Attended by Sean and the midwife Eva (Molly Parker), Martha experiences a spectacular range of physical and emotional states, as she screams, cries, grimaces, pants, and groans through life’s most elemental moment. About two-thirds of the way through the scene, Eva loses confidence in the home procedure and asks Sean to call 9-1-1. The baby is born alive but doesn’t survive the trip to hospital.
The plot that unfolds from there pits the reactions to this tragedy among Martha’s family members against her own numbness, confusion, and overwhelming grief. The decision to bring manslaughter and negligence charges against Eva is made against Martha’s wishes, and in its second half, the film moves from the living rooms of Boston to its courtrooms. Throughout this journey, Vanessa Kirby keeps Martha vitally present on screen even as she often suffers in silence. As for the birth scene — there’s never been anything like it.
I spoke with Vanessa Kirby from her home in England last week about the role and the honors of being an SBIFF Virtuoso and an Academy Award nominee.
Pieces of a Woman started life as a play. Could you talk about that aspect of the development of the project? When Kata [Wéber, screenwriter and life partner of the director, Kornél Mundruczó] wrote the play, it was originally just two scenes: the birth and the dinner party. The whole thing was just an hour and a half long, and it was quite controversial. It really emotionally hit people.
Kata was writing from a place of personal experience, and she talks a lot about how it was frightening for her to write about because it was something that is rarely spoken about, even among women. When you hear the fact that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, you have to wonder why is something that’s happening to 25 percent of women not the subject of open conversation?
So I think she was brave to tackle it, and right to take the approach she did, because if you were to cut it down to two frames — you know, an actor is pushing and then the baby’s out — that would not be reflective of the true experience. So their ambition to show it in real time, and put it all in one take is quite theatrical to me.
I was so excited by that, because to me, I thought it just really requires you to be brave and kind of fearless, and there’s something really liberating about that. When you go onstage, once you’re out from behind the wings, you can’t go off then, and it’s the same with this scene. There’s a reference that is always there. Labor happens, and no loss of thinking can stop the process. The body takes over.
As the film goes on, Martha has to navigate through some challenging scenes with the other characters, particularly her mother and her husband. Did you feel you got a lot of support from the other actors? Since the story covers several months in these people’s lives, we all had to go through multiple stages together, and this was so important to the film because that was a beautiful experience, and everybody felt like it was something bigger than normal.
In the end, one is left with the sense that tragedy has left this couple isolated from one another, even when they are most desperate to connect. Does that go along with your sense of what happens? Yes, talking about stillbirth is not easy because of the way that people feel they have to hide their grief and pain. A grieving process for anybody is so different, so unpredictable, and so deep that you really are on your own with it. If you don’t have the tools or the support to be able to share and know how to begin to talk about it, you can end up unable to find each other or connect. And I do think that’s behind some of the more intense later scenes between Martha and Sean — they are trying to find each other and hold space for each other, but they don’t have the instruments to do so.
Vanessa Kirby will be featured in SBIFF’s Virtuosos Awards on Saturday, April 3, at 6 p.m.