Pieces of a Woman
The first thing to get out of the way in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman is its gruelling opening 30 minutes. The camera is usually trained on Vanessa Kirby as the heavily pregnant Martha Weiss, who goes through a difficult and ultimately tragic homebirth with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Across a single 24-minute take, Mundruczó stages the labour like a piece of Artaudian theatre: maximum pain, and maximum impact. But as Martha and Sean clasp hands, helping each other through the process between contractions, the sentimental strings of composer Howard Shore’s score overcome the mix and pat us on the back. Don’t worry, it says. This is just a film, and you’re allowed to cry.
Picking up again soon after, Pieces of a Woman finds itself divided, unsure whether to perform a courtroom drama as the wider Weiss family sue the midwife (Molly Parker) for negligence, or to depict a relationship slowly eroding following unspeakable tragedy, or to deliver an intimate portrait of a woman falling apart. In chasing all three strands, Mundruczó loses his way. On the first count, the family’s search for justice is thrown around in expository scenes that unfold at a languid pace. Their improvisational metier is disengaging, with camerawork that doesn’t seem to know who it should follow. Rather like Shore’s score ruining the fidelity of the birthing scene, shouldn’t the virtue of an extended take be its proximity to the moment?
Following recent allegations against LaBeouf, there is little appeal or interest in empathising with his character’s succumbing to alcohol and narcissism. While it struggles to grip with its drama, the film’s unnamed American setting becomes one of its most compelling intrigues. Where is this snow, this bridge; where are these Victorian Townhouses? Mundruczó’s nonspecificity doesn’t help. Caught between legal drama and family saga (Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother monologuing about the Holocaust is another abrupt turn that links to little) it all feels very contrived. Vanessa Kirby, then, holds it all together with a studied performance that deserves better.
Pieces of a Woman is released digitally on Netflix on 7th January 2021
Watch the trailer for Pieces of a Woman here: