I waited a few days after watching “Pieces of a Woman” to write about it. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to write anything more about it than the non sequiturs I’d typed into the notes app on my phone: “milk but no baby,” “spitting out an appleseed,” “unfinished bridge.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get in the middle of the cultural conversation about the death of the artist, delve into the twisted feeling in my stomach when watching Sean, the male lead played by Shia Labeouf (“Honey Boy”), eerily mirroring the addiction and abuse that his actor has been accused of. I wasn’t sure if it was even right for me to criticize a film about motherhood when I don’t know the first thing about it.
Of course, it’s my job. In Martin Scorsese’s 2021 documentary “Pretend It’s a City,” essayist Fran Lebowitz says that a story “is not supposed to be a mirror — it’s supposed to be a door.” But “Pieces of a Woman” feels so gripping that I felt deeply connected to the story, although it’s not one I’ve experienced firsthand.
The extended one-shots meandering through tense scenes forcibly immerse the viewer into the lives of the two mothers at its center, Martha (Vanessa Kirby, “The Crown”) and Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). Director Kornél Mundruczó (“White God”) invites you through the door of the story and into a hall of mirrors, simultaneously leading you through his own creation while connecting you to the universal experiences of joy, pain, suffering and kinship. That’s the paradox here: To offer up Lebowitz’s narrative doors to others, someone somewhere along the line has to stare at themselves in the mirror and write down this story that may have previously spent a lot of time behind locked doors.
If I’m going to double down on this door/mirror metaphor, stories about motherhood have generally been hidden behind a slightly translucent door in your grandmother’s bathroom. When you’re taking a shower to get the smell of your grandmother’s perfume out of your hair, the glass fogs up and you can only see the other side if you open the door. But if you wipe away the condensation, you can see yourself — see the fingerprints and smears from when your mother and your mother’s mother have looked themselves in the face in the same spot that you’re standing in just then. “Pieces of a Woman” isn’t necessarily doing revolutionary work by portraying the realities of motherhood, but it is pulling back the curtains on ideas that we maybe didn’t realize we were so naive about.
Obviously, everyone has a mother, even if they’re not directly in your life. You’d think that after all this time, after all the Mary Karr poems and “Lady Bird” viewings, we’d have exhausted the vat of stories about mothers and daughters.
But “Pieces of a Woman” works best when it’s lingering on the universality within the specific. We’ve all heard stories about the excruciating pain of childbirth and unbearable anxiety felt by first-time parents, but Mundruczó dives into the often overlooked parts of that experience: the embarrassment of waddling around with no pants like Winnie the Pooh after Martha’s water breaks, the incessant burping that comes from the rise in progesterone during labor, the diapers Martha has to wear when the physical trauma of childbirth affects her bladder control, the involuntary lactation in the middle of a public place. You’d think the observation of normal bodily functions would get old after a while (and at times the film does fall prey to some cliches of American drama like quivering lower lips or ham-fisted metaphors), but it’s still illuminating.
If you don’t know anything about “Pieces of a Woman,” I’d suggest you don’t read the synopsis. I did, and I still enjoyed it, but there are some harrowing sequences in the first half of the film that I think would benefit from the uncertainty of its result. Essentially, “Pieces of a Woman” is a study of familial and romantic love. Whether it succeeds in its work or not is up to you, but I promise you it’ll make you want to call your mom, check up on her and thank her.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.