Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release the film on its streaming platform on Thursday, January 7.
If Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s “Pieces of a Woman” seems to rearrange the fragments of a typical melodrama into something unusually jagged and incomplete, perhaps that’s because there aren’t many films about miscarriages or stillbirths. Movies often introduce such tragedies as plot twists — cruel yet narratively convenient ways of bridging the gap between one part of a story and another — but few dare to make them the crux of the story itself.
There are several reasons for that. For one thing, movies about dead babies don’t typically pull Marvel-like numbers at the box office. For another, the pain of losing a pregnancy or newborn child is unfathomable in a way that can be hard to communicate to people who haven’t suffered a similar loss. What does it feel like to mourn something that was never alive? And if someone is lucky enough not to know the answer to that question, is it possible (or even desirable) for a movie to share it with them?
Watching “Pieces of a Woman,” it’s obvious director Mundruczó and screenwriter Wéber — partners in real life who share a “film by” credit here — know the answer to that first question all too well (the press notes indicate a personal loss of some kind, but remain understandably vague about the details). This is the kind of movie you don’t make unless you have to. If the filmmakers struggle to distill some version of their experience into a 125-minute drama that will resonate with people who haven’t felt such hurt firsthand, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
Mundruczó’s virtuosic movies tend to open like a house on fire only to spend the last two acts finger-painting with the ashes (see: “White God,” “Jupiter’s Moon”) and “Pieces of a Woman” is no exception. On the contrary, this film’s harrowing prologue is the most audacious thing its director has ever shot: A 30-minute long-take that follows an ill-fated home birth in real time as Mundruczó’s camera wends through a Boston townhouse on a gimbal, supplanting the chaos of a handheld camera with a harrowing sense of awe and holy terror.
Things seem off from the start, even if birth plans were made to be broken. It’s bad enough that Martha (Vanessa Kirby) feels sick — loopy, confused, gulping back vomit that never comes — and even worse that the scheduled midwife is busy with another labor. Her replacement is a woman named Eve (“Madeline’s Madeline” actress Molly Parker, threading the needle between fierce conviction and false confidence as only she can), and we can’t help but distrust her or feel like she’s in over her head.
Maybe we’re just channeling the manic helplessness that’s radiating off of Martha’s partner. A blue-collar Bostonian who’s promised his unborn daughter she’ll be the first to cross the massive new bridge he’s building over the Charles River, the extremely Shia LaBeouf-like Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is the kind of guy who can’t even make small talk without a serrated edge. Like a feral animal trapped in a cage made for something half its size — or like virtually every other character LaBeouf has played in recent memory — Sean is wound up in a way that leaves you nervous every time he’s onscreen. His spring-loaded sense of coiled violence makes him scary enough on a good day, let alone the worst night of his life. Which is exactly what he’s in for.
We suspect things aren’t going to end well — you can’t help but cringe at Martha’s ominous decision to frame her ultrasounds in the baby’s nursery — but that doesn’t make it any easier to witness. In fact, the sequence might seem emotionally pornographic if not for how foundational it is for the film that follows (only an abbreviated Sigur Rós cue threatens to tip the gambit into exploitation). Having a child is like placing your heart outside of your body, and understanding “Pieces of a Woman” would be too much of a jigsaw puzzle if we weren’t forced to be so deep inside the moment when Martha saw that heart stop beating.
Losing someone is easier to film than the entropy of living without them, so it’s no surprise that “Pieces of a Woman” struggles to maintain the emotional velocity of its intro. The remaining 90 minutes of the movie are scattered over the next six months as Sean and Martha try to sort through the rubble of the future they’d imagined together. How are you supposed to move on from that kind of trauma? How is a film supposed to live up to that kind of kickoff? You’re not, and it can’t, but the characters in “Pieces of a Woman” aren’t seen through the story’s inertia so much as suffocated by it. Martha goes numb as fall hardens into winter, but the stoic uncertainty of Kirby’s ultra-committed performance is unfulfilled by a script that isn’t sure how to apply its heroine’s strength.
Her pain is easier to illustrate, and Mundruczó and Wéber are well-attuned to the cruelty of Martha’s condition. To the unique visibility of a mother losing their child with nothing to show for what they’d been carrying. To the acute invisibility of watching other parents interact with their kids in public. To the way Martha’s own body continues to betray her for months after the tragedy and express her grief in ways she can neither hide nor control. Hard as she tries to put herself back together, there’s always another leak. Kirby plays Martha as a woman trying to right a ship that’s already halfway underwater, and the movie around her is at its best when watching her try to keep an even keel.
But there are so many other things Mundruczó and Wéber want to do — so many pieces of Martha they try to reassemble before she realizes she’ll never be made whole. Sometimes that’s expressed through airless symbolism (e.g., Martha’s overstated affinity for apples and their seeds, Sean’s bridge nearing completion as he burns all the other ones in his life). Sometimes it’s expressed through secondary characters.
This movie belongs to Martha, but Sean’s gradual self-destruction eats up a lot of the energy. He handles the loss of their daughter as you might expect, letting the anger get the best of him and throwing away six years of sobriety. If his journey never feels dishonest, it nevertheless becomes unmoored from the gravity of Martha’s grief as soon as it’s clear they’re traveling along different orbits. She recognizes Sean as just another part of herself she’ll never get back, while the film agonizes its way toward the same understanding.
A subplot connecting Sean and Martha’s cousin (“Succession” favorite Sarah Snook) could’ve been ditched entirely. Another thread concerning the uneasy alliance between Sean and Martha’s rich and severe Holocaust survivor of a mother (a quavering Ellen Burstyn) frays into a mess of half-finished thoughts on class, survival, and the ultimate cost of putting the past behind you. Benny Safdie and Iliza Shlesinger deliver supporting performances that lend Martha’s extended family a sense of lived-in strain, but they’re mostly reduced to window dressing until a pivotal get-together wraps most of the cast in a tense conversation about… the White Stripes?
It all builds to a court scene hijacked by the histrionics of America’s legal system, which feels like it belongs to another movie altogether. The hint of a media circus around Eve’s trial never materializes, as “Pieces of a Woman” splinters into so many shards that Martha has no choice but to accept she’ll never put them back together again. The film strives to find the grace in that futility — in Martha’s hard-won acceptance of the fact that she’ll always be missing some part of herself, and that she’ll have to grow around that absence if she doesn’t want to fall into it. But after the implosive force of those first 30 minutes, the rest of the movie can’t help but feel like a self-defeating scavenger hunt through the rubble.
“Pieces of a Woman” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.
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