Pieces of a Woman is something you don’t always get, and I mean that in multiple senses. It wholeheartedly is a melodrama, one that centers on a couple’s loving relationship that’s threatened to be torn apart by grief. Yet, from the get-go, it’s told through a series of lengthy, elaborately choreographed tracking shots: Think of a movie that attempts to meld John Cassavetes’ emotional ruggedness with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s visual showmanship. With Pieces of a Woman, Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber, are also with their English-language debut making a movie of the not so easy topic of miscarriages and stillbirths; subjects so uncommonly shown in cinema that it might be able to speak to the film’s almost unfinished feeling.
Mundruczó is a filmmaker, though, who often tackles such heavy themes (he as well directs theater and opera), delivering films with a showboating flair that hit you from the beginning. And Pieces of a Woman continues such a trend: With a twenty-three minute long-take of a harrowing prologue, that sees the central young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), plunged into the sudden chaos of a delivery and then following through their ill-fated home birth in real time, as the camera winds through their Boston townhouse. Problems arise from the beginning, Martha feels sick and, even worse, the scheduled midwife is busy with another labor. Her replacement is a woman named Eve (Molly Parker), and we can’t help but distrust her or feel like she might be in over her head. Or maybe it’s just because we’re starting to get some of the manic helplessness that’s radiating off 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, Sean is the kind of guy who’s always on edge. Like a feral animal trapped in too small of a cage, Sean — like many other LaBeouf characters — is wound so tight that he’s nerve-rackingly unpredictable every time he’s onscreen. His coiled nature can make him scary on a normal day, but on a bad one, who knows? Yet the latter is exactly what he’s in for.
We suspect things aren’t going to end well, but that doesn’t make it any easier to witness. But, that emotionally overwhelming opening sequence is foundational for the film that follows. Having a child is like witnessing and caressing your own heart outside of your body, and Pieces of a Woman is already a jigsaw puzzle of attempting to understand, even as we’re deep in the moment when Martha saw that heart stop beating. Losing someone is easier to film than the unruly mess of living without them is, so it’s no surprise that Pieces of a Woman struggles to maintain the emotional velocity of that intro. The remaining ninety 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? Neither seem possible, but the characters in Pieces of a Woman aren’t seen through the story’s dormancy so much as suffocated by it. Martha goes numb as fall solidifies into winter, but the stoic uncertainty of Kirby’s deeply committed performance is unfulfilled by a script (from Wéber) that isn’t sure on what to do with its protagonist’s strength.
Her pain is easier to illustrate, and Mundruczó and Wéber are aware of the cruelty of Martha’s condition: From her tendency of watching other parents and their kids in public, to the way her own body continues to betray her months after the tragedy. As hard as she tries to assemble herself back together, there’s always a new crack. And Kirby plays Martha as a woman trying to fix an already sinking ship that’s halfway underwater, and the movie around her is at its best when it’s watching her try to keep steady. But, there are so many other things that Mundruczó and Wéber want to do with Martha’s reassembling. Sometimes that’s expressed through stale symbolism (i.e., Martha’s overstated love for apples and their seeds or Sean’s bridge slowly being built as he burns all the ones in his life). Sometimes it’s expressed through secondary characters. The 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. Even as his journey never feels dishonest, it nevertheless still becomes detached from the gravity of Martha’s grief as soon as it’s clear they’re traveling along different orbits.
But there’s even more secondary characters, one of which involves an entirely cuttable subplot connecting Sean with Martha’s cousin (Sarah Snook). Another thread concerning the uneasy alliance between Sean and Martha’s rich and severe Holocaust survivor of a mother (a trembling Ellen Burstyn) unravels into a mess of half-baked 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 family get-together that involves a tense conversation about… the White Stripes? It all builds to a courtroom scene of large histrionics, which feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie. The hint of a media circus around Eve’s trial never materializes, as Pieces of a Woman splinters into so many fragments that Martha has no choice but to accept she’ll never be able to put them back together again. The film strives to find the grace in Martha’s hard-won acceptance of the fact she’ll always be missing some part of herself, and that she’ll have to grow around that hole if she doesn’t want to fall into it. But after the volcanic force of that prologue, the rest of the movie can’t help but feel front-loaded, like a self-defeating search through the rubble. As heartbreakingly superb as Vanessa Kirby is, Pieces of a Woman can’t sustain its emotional raggedness, coming apart at its scattered seams, ultimately finding itself as just pieces of a good movie.
Pieces of a Woman will be available to stream on Netflix on January 7