Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber work in tandem to tell a gripping story that brings light to the individual ways in which loss affects us all. Adapted to the screen from Mundruczó and Wéber’s stageplay of the same name, “Pieces of a Woman” is a beautiful film that sadly proves to be less than the sum of its parts. From Mundruczó’s intimate style behind the camera, to the captivating performances of Vanessa Kirby & Shia LaBeouf, and Howard Shore’s poignant tone-setting score, “Pieces of a Woman” has all of the markings a magnificent film should possess. Unfortunately, much of what the film presents to the audience is never done in a tactful way. Instead, subtext is thrown to the wayside in favor of a more heavy-handed approach to storytelling. In an attempt to deliver a thought-provoking piece of work that tackles the complicated and heavy subject matter of familial loss, “Pieces of a Woman” finds itself marred down by its own lack of focus.
“Pieces of a Woman” tells a complicated story of love and loss over the span of roughly eight months, with each month effectively being a contained chapter that smoothly bookends events keeping the plot in motion. We follow Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), two soon to be parents living in Boston expecting their first child. Suddenly one night, Martha begins to feel a heavy wave of contractions which prompts Sean to call their midwife Barbara who informs them that she is currently unavailable, however, in her stead she sends Eva (Molly Parker) to cover the procedure. At first, all appears to be going well, but when the baby’s heart rate begins to plummet, Eva realizes that the child’s life may be in danger. Acting quickly, Eva orders Sean to call the paramedics while she does her best to safely help deliver their daughter. Yet, the delivery goes well, with Martha being able to successfully push her baby out giving her and Sean the chance to hold and love their newborn daughter for a single tender moment. And a single tender moment it is, as mere seconds later, Eva notices that their daughter’s skin has lost its natural complexion and turned into a shade of dark blue. Eva rushes into action in an attempt to save the child’s life as Sean darts out of their home leading the paramedics inside. What occurs over the next seven months is a journey for both Martha and Sean as their relationship is vigorously tested. Each copes with the loss of their daughter through different means in an attempt to find clarity and come to peace. All the while, outside forces involving family and friends, push and pull Martha and Sean in a variety of directions until emotions reach their natural breaking points.
The opening labor scene in “Pieces of a Woman” lasts roughly around twenty-five minutes and is truly a remarkable sequence that so preciously captures the immense weight of the situation by holding you tight and never letting go. Mundruczó’s use of a continuous shot during this sequence makes us, the audience more than just passive bystanders and instead reels us in as active participants. We travel with Kirby and LaBeouf as they navigate their home, we feel the stress, the fear, and the anxiety with every passing second. The intimacy of this scene functions so well that in spite of us only knowing these characters for five minutes prior, we sit at the edge of our seats anticipating what will happen next by hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. This one moment sets the stage and tells us that no matter what is to come, we should expect nothing less than stellar camera work. And I can safely say that Mundruczó does not falter in his work. Throughout the entire film, Mundruczó and company use the camera to seamlessly weave through the environments which in turn gives every scene a natural flow that keeps our attention every step of the way. We grow familiar with the spaces in which the camera occupies and we feel the rich emotions our characters feel, and none of that would be possible without Mundruczó’s exceptional directing.
“Pieces of a Woman” puts Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf at center stage as the main leads, and their performances are truly nothing short of remarkable. Kirby and LaBeouf both perfectly capture the raw emotional essence of the script further making you believe in these characters and this story. We witness how Kirby closes herself off wishing to sever the past while creating a distance between all of her loved ones as she battles with those around her who wish to tell her how to properly respond. LaBeouf’s spiral into old habits and his damaging cycle of grief is something that will simultaneously make you frown in sorrow as you shake your head in disappointment. Kirby and LaBeouf give it their all in every moment ensuring to handle every sequence with care by refraining from ever overselling or underselling a single scene. Alongside them, Kirby and LaBeouf are joined by Ellen Burstyn (as Elizabeth) whose power and presence will have you sigh out of vexation until you smile with sympathy. Molly Parker (as Eva) for what limited time she has on-screen delivers so much with so little as she brilliantly runs the gamut of emotion from start to finish. Every last one of these performers delivers nothing less than quality work as they fantastically elevate Wéber’s raw script to new heights. It is the performances found within this film that are the true backbone of this engrossing narrative.
Despite every individual aspect of “Pieces of a Woman” being executed well, the film ultimately suffers from having a plot which sets out to tell so much, that at times it loses its clear focus. We sit with the trauma, we get familiar with it, and some may even understand it, but personally, the film never enthralled me quite like I had anticipated it would. The entire opening of the film is outstandingly gripping, but sadly, the remainder of the film never lives up to that level of both visual and narrative storytelling. Beautiful fleeting character moments are sprinkled all throughout the film and handled tremendously well, while others feel forced as they try their best to elicit a response that it has unfortunately not earned. It is for this reason, that “Pieces of a Woman” stands as such a mixed bag; it promises a great deal of intrigue with a story that focuses on a universal nightmare we all share, yet, the film does not maintain the high level of quality its subject matter so desperately deserves.