Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó

Cast: : Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn

Director Kornél Mundruczó’s latest film Pieces of a Woman is a strange case. It’s a story about losing a child in labor, so those who have experienced that horrific tragedy will likely never want to watch the movie in the first place. And for those fortunate enough never to have gone through that, they won’t obtain any of the intended catharsis from the viewing experience.

The film is being overshadowed by its 24-minute pre-title card birthing sequence, and for good reason. It’s a one-shot of Vanessa Kirby’s character, Martha, going into labor at her home. Her boyfriend Sean (Shia LaBeouf) lovingly supports her the whole way while their midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), tries to successfully deliver the child when their original midwife is unavailable at the last minute. It’s not a spoiler to say that within moments of the couple being able to hold their baby daughter for the first time, she passes away unexpectedly. The rest of the film follows Martha and Sean as they attempt to deal with this tragedy.

A scene like this deserves talking about because it’s literally tethered to the weight of the entire rest of the movie. Filmed in a single take, the performers never lose sight of the realness of it all. There’s a tendency to think of a sequence like this as a gimmick, but there’s a certain velocity that’s propelling us through this incredibly-staged, albeit long, travail. To add sincerity to the matter, it’s inspired by a real-life circumstance of Mundruczó and his partner, Kata Wéber, who pens the script. Whether or not we’re comfortable with what it’s doing, this sequence commands our attention. We know it’s important, and as a viewer we can’t help but give it the respect it deserves.

Throughout the remainder of the film, Martha and Sean each handle their grief in an entirely different way. Martha, quiet but mercurial, keeps the pain hidden from most, but tries erasing her daughter from her mind where she can. She takes down the framed picture of the ultrasound and sends the baby’s body off to be studied by science. Sean, unpredictable and volatile in his own right, wants to keep hanging onto his daughter as long as possible. With the two at odds, their relationship turns sour.

Martha’s disproportionately elderly mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is overbearing, controlling, and senile. She thinks Sean isn’t a good fit for Martha because he doesn’t match her own pristine and idyllic facade. A former alcoholic, Sean’s perceived cultural and intellectual simplicity just doesn’t conform to what Elizabeth had wanted for her daughter. Elizabeth constantly oversteps her bounds, even going forward herself in pressing charges against Eva, the midwife. You see, she’s always thinking about how she and her family will be perceived by her hoity-toity community, and wants to remove any plausible fault placed on them in the eyes of her friends.

The story evolves in an interesting way. A baby’s death, which impacts the relationship between her mother and father, transforms into a character study about the two of them, eventually culminating in a courtroom drama. However, Mundruczó’s focus and deliberation keep this narrative well-afloat despite itself. And the unorthodox developments prevent the audience from feeling encumbered by the heaviness of the premise—even though the intensity is very difficult to watch at times.

From top to bottom, the performances are immaculate. Kirby carries the load as she’s able to display both pain and love at the same time. While she’s not always given the words, we can truly feel her agony. Likewise, although the focus here is mostly on Kirby, LaBeouf gives one of his best performances ever. The actor’s emotional nuance in the face of stoical responsibility and the massive chip on his shoulder is both resonant and heartbreaking, even if the filmmakers can’t decide whether they want to throw his character under the bus or have us sympathize with him.

The director sprinkles his movie with some well-deserved and satisfying symbolism, while also leaving certain conclusions unfulfilled. After the devastating incident early on, we begin to root for our two leads. We don’t want to see the baby’s brief existence on this earth be in vain, tearing two lovers apart. We want it to make their bond even stronger. While this film is about Martha, it’s about Sean as well. Unfortunately, we’re never sure about how this movie views him. Does it judge his vices, or justify his actions?

For as often as Mundruczó and Wéber go for a more vérité approach with both the natural scene composition, with help from DP Benjamin Loeb, and the conversational dialogue, there are times where we can’t help but think that there’s some sort of disconnect between the characters’ actions and reality. The banter between them alternates between freely authentic and awkwardly ornate, and is often difficult to grasp amidst the busier scenes (labor sequence excluded). And the segues might be even worse. A momentous and overly-scripted diatribe from Burstyn immediately follows a flippant, almost improvised, conversation between LaBeouf and another actor about the familial dynamics of the rock band The White Stripes. Both portions are well-structured, but unfocused in their context.

The film is about closure and the mourning process, and how it might be different from person to person.

Somehow the filmmakers cobble it all together to make a finished product that is, in fact, satisfying to watch, even if getting there might have some missteps. While other major characters might be in place for pure functionality, fortunately Mundruczó and Wéber hold strong to their depiction of Martha throughout it all. At the very least, she is a fully formed character.

The strengths of Pieces of a Woman lie almost entirely on its heady performances and its thought-provoking overarching, albeit unconventional, parable of sorts. The film is about closure and the mourning process, and how it might be different from person to person. And how one person’s approach might actually impede your own—whether it should or not. It’s difficult enough to find meaning in our own lives, let alone trying to find it in a person who was only alive for minutes. However, as we find out, there’s always a definite purpose to be served nonetheless.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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