I felt a huge level of anxiety within my body in the days leading up to watching the film Pieces of a Woman. Centred around a couple whose baby dies minutes after a traumatic home birth, shown on screen in searing detail, it is not easy viewing for anyone. But baby loss is something I have largely avoided watching anything about, as it is something I have acute personal experience of, having lost my own baby, Axel, in 2017.
Knowing I would inevitably be replaying the traumatic night during which my husband and I watched our baby die, moments after we delivered him at home in our bathroom, I decided to watch the film alone. I feared it would be too emotionally overwhelming to watch it together. I chose the least relaxing place in our house. I didn’t want to cosy up on the sofa in a dimly lit room – it had to be stark and uninviting. I opened my laptop on the dining room table, turned on all the lights and sat on a chair that I have never found particularly comfortable. I poured myself a large glass of wine.
The birth scene is harrowing. It lasts 23 minutes, filmed in a single shot. I watched as Martha – played with unnerving accuracy by Vanessa Kirby – goes into labour and moves from the bed, to the bath and back to birth her baby in the couple’s bedroom. My own home birth was just minutes long and went from deciphering that my stomach pains were contractions, to listening to medical advice on the end of the phone, to lowering myself down to the ground and delivering my baby. But I remember the pacing, the pain and the fear that you see portrayed in this unflinching, raw enactment.
The tension in my body while watching was uncomfortable. I tried to distance myself from what was happening, flicking through a magazine that was on the table next to me. But it was impossible not to focus on the screen. I wanted to tell Martha to leave, to go to the hospital. Get in the car while she still could. I didn’t listen to my own intuition the night I lost my baby. From the early evening on the night he died, I felt something wasn’t right. But I listened to a doctor on the end of the phone, rather than my intuition, which told me to get to hospital as soon as possible. And for that I will never forgive myself. At 3am my waters broke. I delivered my baby on towels hastily laid on the floor in a panic. I watched as he tried to breathe, holding his perfect hands in mine. Axel died shortly after I gave birth to him.
My whole body was with Martha throughout the labour scene. The emotions were so strong that it almost felt like I was there, in the room with her. In my mind I was telling her she would be fine, knowing that what was to come would rip her entire core to pieces.
The rest of the film follows Martha (and her partner) as she tries to return to an existence she had known before her baby died, as I tried to do with my own life. But like Martha, I found that that was impossible. Instead, I was given a new life, one I had to learn to accept and grow into.
Trauma, anger, grief. Occasional peace. These emotions are all within Kirby’s extraordinary performance. I had concerns that the film may try to mask some of the realities of baby loss, but it didn’t. I wrongly assumed that the film would put a filter over the utter madness you feel as you try to hold your life together. But it doesn’t. It lays bare all the grief and miscommunication that comes with baby loss. The empathy from those who try to understand, and the insensitivity from those who don’t.
Martha’s emotional state throughout the film felt in many ways parallel to mine, though the key relationships in her life were vastly different to my own. My relationship with my husband ultimately grew stronger following our loss, while Martha’s unravels. Martha also faces a series of complicated interactions with her opinionated mother (a role played perfectly by Ellen Burstyn); my mother died two years before my pregnancy with Axel, though I empathised with Martha’s struggle to be understood.
After an intense two hours and eight minutes, I closed my laptop. My shoulders were tight and my stomach tense. I have read many accounts of baby loss, but I had never been visually guided through someone else’s story. Although this is a work of fiction, that evening I grieved for Yvette, Martha’s baby. Of course, it was a manifestation of the grief I still hold for my own son.
The couple behind Pieces of a Woman, writer Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó, honour the experience of baby loss, telling the story with the authenticity I hoped they would. The film allows for a genuine understanding of how lonely, angered and often detached you feel.
Having written a three-part series on my own experience of baby loss, my hope has always been that those who go through this trauma will be allowed the time they need to grieve. In almost every case, the expectation to “get better” soon after baby loss is hurried. With the conversation continuing to open up, Pieces of a Woman will surely create further talking points between those that may not have ventured into this often unspoken, and frequently misunderstood, territory.