When a mother’s (Vanessa Kirby) home birth ends in horrendous tragedy, her relationships with her husband (Shia LaBeouf) and loved ones begin to slowly drift and deteriorate over a year-long odyssey of mourning and misery. Can she survive the unfathomable grief and find meaning in her life again?
Pieces of a Woman is nothing if not daring. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó pairs with his wife and screenwriter Kata Weber for a film partially based on their own experiences. That’s a lot of emotional baggage to bring into a film, and we can see at its highest points that Pieces of a Woman uses that energy to draw us in and masterfully manipulate us.
However, perhaps that’s part of the film’s failings. The plot is so driven by protagonist Martha’s (Kirby) inability to process her feelings that the film seems to drift apart, like oil and water, with Martha’s thread powered by emotion but with little plot, while the other characters are trying to make things happen that we can’t connect with in the same way.
The film is undoubtedly beautiful, with the vivid seasons encapsulated to reflect the arc of the character’s lives. Tragedy strikes in cold autumn; the characters reach their nadir in the blustery winter; everything comes to a head in spring; and we get a lifting end on a bright summer day. It’s almost theatrical in its style, like an intricate Ibsen play.
This is further enforced with a simple bridge motif that adds to the look and the feel of the movie. Director Mundruczó has clearly been around the block more than once. We see this at its most plain in an immensely impactful opening sequence during the home birth. The scene is tracked through as one continuous shot, giving us no chance to look away as a miracle becomes a nightmare before our very eyes.
For how pretty Pieces of a Woman is it’s a shame that the narrative doesn’t drive home emotion with the same urgency. After that weighty opening sequence, the plot slowly unravels as we descend into a string of out-of-context sequences following the couple’s tragedy.
We see conflict began to boil between Martha and her family, and we see Sean’s rapid descent into abusive behaviour. However, we get little real interaction between the couple, after such a dynamic and insightful opener. It takes away from the collateral emotional damage that’s supposed to power the film, and instead we get caught up in insignificant side plots, including the court case levelled against the couple’s midwife. The story would have worked better with a more streamlined deep-dive into how the lead characters cope (or don’t cope) with the loss of a child.
The heart and soul of Pieces of a Woman lies in the performances of Kirby and LaBeouf. LaBeouf is every bit the boorish Stanley Kowalski-archetype as the tragedy that besets his family leads him down a path of relapse, infidelity, and violence. It’s a performance tainted by claims of LaBeouf’s assault against his former partner around the film’s release, but it’s still gripping and works as a powerful counterweight to Kirby.
Sean, despite his many obvious failings, wants to grieve. It makes Martha’s muteness and frigid indifference to her child’s death more chilling. Nuance is exactly what was required to compliment LaBeouf. Similarly, while Kirby’s performance may have been flat and baffling in isolation, the pair’s chemistry helps the film to sore when the plot fails.
A film that promised so much and that still delivered a lot of emotional weight ultimately felt a bit flat the next day. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of Pieces of a Woman; it’s bound to leave an impact on you immediately, but over time you bounce back emotionally much quicker than you should, making it seem forgettable.
Pieces of a Woman is a slog. Not (mostly) in a bad way; the film is wrenching and features amazing performances. You’ll just feel drained and a little perplexed afterwards. 6.5/10.