Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
When you get right down to it, cinema is all about emotions. Horror films scare you, action films thrill you and comedy films delight you. This is why there’s so much stock given to films with human drama, as the stories that make you cry often stick with you. In most cases, these kind of films try to strip away the theatricality in order to feel as real as possible. Films like Still Alice (2014), Tangerine (2015), Manchester by the Sea (2016) and Lady Bird (2017) all successfully pulled on our heartstrings, yet not every emotive drama is automatically a home run. The hard part is keeping things believable even when the story gets a little saccharine. This is especially tricky because the craft of filmmaking makes it very easy to accidentally sensationalise things. Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (2020) mostly avoids this, but not without some side effects.
Young couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are happily looking forward to the birth of their first child. They have made all the necessary preparations, from getting the baby’s room ready to buying an appropriate car. Oddly, they have decided to do a home birth, a choice against the advice of Vanessa’s overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). Despite this, Martha and Sean stay the course, even choosing a midwife they mutually agreed on. However, the midwife is unavailable when Martha goes into labour, thus forcing them to use a recommended backup, Eva (Molly Parker). Following a rather tense birth, it seems like everything went fine until Eva notices the baby turning blue. Tragically, the baby didn’t survive, thus putting Martha into a downward spiral of grief.
Most films of this type have a slow start and build to a powerful finish, but Pieces of a Woman flips that structure. Right off the bat, we are treated to an absolutely jaw-dropping depiction of the home-birth in a half-hour opening scene. This extended sequence gets the ball rolling unlike any film in recent memory, as we are immediately thrown into a whirlwind of tension, horror and stress. It’s not easy to set up the central conflict and character motivations when we’re just dropped into the story, but the nature of the tense situation shocks us into giving our full attention. Director Kornél Mundruczó treats this prologue like an opening action sequence, even utilising the popular long take illusion to amplifying the scene’s power. It’s a startling way to begin the film and it really assists in providing context for the protagonist’s heartbreak.
It’s a good thing the opening act is as strong as it is, because sadly the film loses much of its momentum. Once we enter the second act, the quiet and grounded storytelling approach lacks the energy of the home-birth. The reason for the slight lack of engagement is because the story doesn’t have many places to go in-between the opening and the climax. To be fair, this isn’t the kind of film which needs to be over-the-top with its drama, nor should it considering what the characters are going through. Mundruczó understands the sombre reality of this tragedy, so he has done the appropriate thing by downplaying the intensity. Martha, Sean and the rest of the characters have all been greatly affected by the loss, and Mundruczó rightly tries to get inside their heads without dipping into too many clichés.
Thankfully, momentum does pick up for the third act. In a relatively short period of time, Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber effectively delve into the confronting psychological toll the events have caused. To successfully achieve this, the melodrama is amped up to a level not completely earned by the film’s previously minimalist tone. One minute we are in the middle of a quiet, contemplative drama, only to then be dropped into a theatrical courtroom without much build up. To be fair, the narrative led to the only viable resolution, but the slight tonal shift does make it feel unnatural at times. Additionally, the film is rife with subtle visual symbolism, but that subtlety is lost when the drama is overplayed.
This is always the tricky part with dramatic art pieces, as there’s a lot of complexity to unpack but only two hours to do it. The emotional weight of losing a child can’t be easy to understand or explain, as it’s the kind of calamity no one should ever have to go through. People will want point fingers of blame in order to make sense of it, which is exactly what Mundruczó hones in on. It’s a complicated state of mind and Mundruczó makes a game effort of showing how each character deals with it. This is at the core of what makes the story work, but it can feel a bit more reductive than it should. The final act hinges on an important story turn that’s not too hard to rationalise, thus slightly cheapening the heavy conclusion. It’s not possible to fully come to terms with what Martha must be going through, yet the film feels like it’s trying to find a declarative point.
Thankfully, Vanessa Kirby heartbreakingly performs Martha without trying to make sense of it all. From The Crown (2016 – 2017) to Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), Kirby has constantly been a charming standout, but we had yet to see her take the lead with a meaty role. In Pieces of a Woman, she has further proven her dramatic talent, showing her ability to emote without ever needing to mug the camera. Even when the focus shifts to the performances of Shia LaBeouf or Ellen Burstyn, you can’t help but feel Kirby’s sorrow permeating through the screen at all times. Her performance is so precise that she is able to make even the more stagy moments feel just as natural as the realistic moments. It’s a powerful performance which elevates the film’s rougher aspects.
These are always the toughest films to write about. Rave reviews are easy because you always have a lot of nice things to say, and scathing reviews are even easier. A notably imperfect film with dramatically genuine intentions is by far the hardest to accurately critique. There’s definitely plenty to like, but the overall picture is somewhat misshapen and needs many small adjustments. Pieces of a Woman is one such film, as it’s not everything it could’ve been despite being powerfully acted, emotionally directed and dramatically complex.
Best way to watch it: With a good sit-com next in the queue.