T.S. Eliot once wrote that what we call the beginning is oftentimes the end, while making an end is often a beginning.
Pieces of a Woman, now playing on Netflix, features one of the most stunning beginnings seen in film over the past year, a bravura piece of filmmaking that heightens in intensity as the camera floats in long tracking shots between rooms and individuals. It takes a natural act, that of childbirth, and makes it both obscenely fraught with tension and beautiful at the same time. But that spellbinding beginning, a 30-minute scene before the credits roll, is also an end, as a mother loses her newborn child and must deal with that tragedy. However, the movie itself doesn't always know how to begin again, as it moves into a more mundane drama complete with tinkling piano music and short scenes that don't always cohere. Pieces of a Woman settles into a more solemn, desperate groove whose sense of quietude belies the roar that came before. Even though the movie as a whole cannot live up to that great beginning, it is worth the time to stream for its depiction of a family in crisis and looking for paths to move forward. That is does so in such a procedural manner should not be held against it, even if the movie can be as disjointed as the random acts of the main character, who is losing her grip. That character, Martha, is played with the right dollop of intensity by Vanessa Kirby, best known for her role at Princess Margaret on the TV series The Crown. Kirby's character is about to give birth at the start of the film, where shots of the gray Boston skyline and her disordered house somehow convey a sense of dread. She and her partner, Sean, decide to hire a midwife and have their first baby at home. Suddenly, she is in labor, and for an extended period, you see Martha sweat, panic, cry out, roll over in pain, curl into a fetal position, push hard to deliver a baby and go through the agonizing steps that a natural birth can trigger. It is painful to watch. Sean, played by Shia LaBeouf, attempts to tenderly prod Martha to work through her labor pains. LaBeouf is perfect in the role, an actor who can play gruff, working class characters that carry pain and anger with them. His real-life anger issues may be troubling but they do not mar his performance. In Pieces of a Woman, pain and anger are suddenly mixed up with the miracle of childbirth. The birth goes wrong. The baby begins to lose blood pressure and its heart rate grows fainter the closer to birth. The substitute midwife (played by Molly Parker) asks whether the couple should go to the hospital but Martha is determined to stick it out. That proves to be a mistake. The couple and the midwife take Martha to the bath and then to the bedroom, hoping to change positions to assist in the birth. The camera darts between extreme closeups of Martha and Sean clutching each other to longer views of Martha curled on the bed. It is heart-wrenching to watch. Finally, the baby is born, and the couple hold the girl to their bosoms like a tender flower. In a great shot from director Kornel Mundruczo, the midwife is shown at a bedroom mirror composing herself and fixing her hair, breathing deeply because the worst is over. Then it isn't. The baby's pulse drops again. Paramedics are called in. The baby is gone. The aftermath of this scene is where the movie has difficulty maintaining momentum. In a series of life fragments depicted by dates shown across the Boston Harbor, Kirby's character grows more detached and emotionally distant. It is as if she struggles to rid herself of loss and is trying to shake herself awake. But she finds that others do not have the same mission. Her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is domineering and wants to sue the midwife for incompetence that led to the baby's death. She does not care for Sean, who is not in her social class, and drives a wedge between him and Martha. She may be a bit of a tyrant but Burstyn plays the mother character with grace and compassion for her daughter. Sean, meanwhile, deals with trauma by acting more aggressively, ridding his demons through illicit sex and abuse. In one scene, he attempts to coax Martha into rough sex, but she pushes him away, unable to deal with something that would lead her out of her own internal dialogue. The conflict grows. Martha wants to donate the baby's organs to science, but Elizabeth and Sean wish to bury the baby properly. Martha rejects the idea of a civil suit against the midwife without explanation, except for the fact that she does not want the past to linger. She wants an ending and a new beginning, while other family members cannot except the end just yet. While that dramatic base is set, Mundruczo does not play it for melodrama. It is all underplayed and low key. The movie has been compared to a film from the 1970s, where dialogue and character interaction drive plot at the expense of action. Think John Cassavettes and his great A Woman Under the Influence or early Jack Nicholson films, such as Five Easy Pieces. Yet, those movies have more activity and plot movement. Still, it is the great performances from Kirby, LaBeouf and Burstyn that keep the film afloat. Kirby's odd distance is both felt by the viewer as a necessary response to her loss but also as a means to keep her emotions at simmer. One standout scene later in the film provides stark contrast to Kirby's malaise. Burstyn's Elizabeth confronts Martha and gives her a dressing down. Her monologue talks of how she was raised poor, starving and hidden by an impoverished mother. She concludes her story with a tale of how a physician was ready to give up on the listless baby unless she could raise an arm while being held upside down. Elizabeth does that and continues her story by telling Martha that she needs to keep fighting. However, for Martha, fighting loss means putting it behind her, not battling a midwife or being vocal about what went wrong. Her means of coming to grips with grief is to put that into a compartment and live her life.