Pieces of a Woman showcases a bravura if ostentatious initial quarter, but it’s all downhill from there as the film devolves into mere misery porn tropes.
Director Kornél Mundruczó knows how to open a film (see the otherwise underwhelming White God, for example), and with Pieces of a Woman he sets out to obliterate his previous benchmark. After quick, separate introductions to Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a young married couple expecting their first child any day, Mundruczó balls out with a 30-minute long-take detailing the final stretch of a home birth. It’s an audacious, yet controlled sensorial assault: Martha bellows and bawls and burps through contractions; a patient camera roves the halls, ducking into and out of doorways, slowly following the action as if afraid of intruding. Roughly 20 minutes in, this raw, detail-attentive opening slows for a brief interlude: Martha, who has just moved to the bathtub, asks Shawn to get some music. As Sigur Ros’s “Untitled 3” washes over the scene, momentarily supplanting all other sonic textures, the pair join in a modified embrace: shot in tight close-up, their hands both caress and seek purchase, their noses briefly kiss, and they finally pull back to gaze into each other’s eyes, before Martha’s flit away as a new contraction begins. It’s the proverbial calm before the storm, a moment of deep, shared intimacy that works as tragic contrast with what follows.
Any number of films have tackled the topic of grieving parents navigating the loss of a child, but far fewer have explored the loss of a baby mere minutes after birth. But rather than guide this starting scenario into new territory, Pieces of a Woman instead indulges in simple misery porn. Despite the first half hour’s undeniable ostentation, Mundruczó executes its Euro-arthouse cum melodrama mashup with deftness (it even pads its indie cred with supporting turns from Benny Safdie and Jimmie Fails). But the following 90 minutes doesn’t possess the same confidence of vision. There are brief moments of clarity — the film slowly shifts from Shawn’s churning despair to Martha’s largely silent grief and hollowed-out emotional core, fulfilling the title’s promise — but Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber (also the director’s real-life partner) do little else to distinguish their material. Instead, the script supplies a catalog of generic consequences: Shawn relapses into drug and alcohol abuse; domestic flaccidity results in an affair (with a family member, no less); and simmering class resentments between Martha’s well-to-do family and Shawn’s working-class background begin to boil over.
In this way, Pieces of a Woman is a tale of two films. Its first quarter bears little resemblance to the rest, which seems constructed largely as a stage for an actors’ showcase. Quiet honesty is replaced with broad emoting. LaBeouf is an actor seemingly incapable of subtlety, and he’s one of a few actors who thrives in this gaudy mode, but he’s given little to chew on here. Shawn is a self-proclaimed boor with deep recesses of feeling, but his arc is too shallow for the actor to generate much power. Kirby fairs better thanks to the less communicative nature of her role, and the resultant brooding lends a certain expansiveness to Martha’s development, but she too is poorly served by a closed-off character who emotionally sleepwalks through most of the film. It was never going to be easy to capture the entropic fallout of the film’s central cataclysm or to tonally match its initial burst, but there’s no salvaging the tired, formulaic, grief-centric domestic drama that it becomes. Pieces of a Woman feels like a distinctly personal film, but it communicates little in the way of psychological or emotional acuity. What remains instead is a film troubled by its unfulfilled possibility.
You can watch Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman in theaters beginning tomorrow or stream it on Netflix on January 7.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.