Pieces of a Woman – Review

There is little time for set up or establishing shots in Kornel Mundruczo’s Pieces of a Woman. After a few quick glances over a Boston, and a title card displaying the date, he quickly plunges the viewer into an arduous, thirty minute labour scene with the films two leads. It’s unswerving in its intensity and perhaps – unfortunately – sets the film up to be something it’s not.

Corporate executive Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her construction worker husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) have opted for a home birth for their first child. When her scheduled midwife doesn’t arrive, Martha is forced to place her fate – and that of her child’s – in the hands of Eva (Molly Parker).

Much has been made of the labour scene in this movie. At thirty minutes long, it’s a quarter of the film’s run time. The camera rarely moves from Martha’s sweaty brow and animalistic grunts – although there are a few nervous glances at her belly – as it follows her pace out her contractions from room to room. It’s incredibly intense, followed by an emotional dénouement that really pulls the rug.

Martha loses her baby girl after just a few moments of life and, from there, the rest of the film unravels. And it really does unravel.

Kata Weber’s screenplay – based on her own traumatic experiences of losing a child – does it’s best to acknowledge what the loss of a baby can do to familial and spousal relationships. But it gets lost in amongst a sea of awkward performances, some odd improvisation and plot bombshells that are seemingly never followed through. There are also really lazy visual metaphors – apple seeds, anyone? – that feel infantile in an otherwise grown up plot.

There are neat touches of grief – the pitiful stares as Martha returns to work; the stilted family conversations; a husband who doesn’t know how to comfort his wife; an empty nursery. But these are never fully explored.

Pieces of a WomanInstead, Sean is cast as “the bad guy” as he forces his wife into resuming their sex life – a scene that is far more difficult to watch than any birth – and relapses into his various addictions (as if to reinforce the point that he, a working class labourer, is not equipped to deal with emotional situations like his office-dwelling wife and her wealthy family).

Ellen Bursytn gives a beautifully fiery yet vulnerable performance as Martha’s battleaxe mother, determined to sue anyone she can for the loss of her grandchild. In one particularly striking speech, she talks about how she was born in the Jewish ghetto and hidden under the floorboards to survive. She wants her daughter to survive this immense loss, too.

But the film seems to crash from one scene to the next. There’s a weird family dinner where it feels like all of the actors are improvising but – like a sad Thursday night drama class – no one is very good at it. We never really get to understand Martha’s grief as we are never really “let in” to her character’s emotions. Everything feels very closed off. Supplementary characters are given almost nothing to do.

As it muddles towards its climax – which I do believe someone, somewhere thought would be up there with all-time great movie speeches – as a viewer, I felt less and less for these characters. Martha’s final cri de coeur in the courtroom feels like lazy writing. It’s incredibly forced and felt so at odds with the way her character had been developed so far.

Yes, the subject matter is grim, but Pieces of a Woman feels, at times, like a feat of endurance that not even some strong central performance can save. It just doesn’t ever join all the dots. It’s part courtroom drama, part family drama, part indie arthouse – and the three just don’t work together (at least, not here, anyway).

Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix.

Mary Munoz
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