Pieces of a Woman starts out intimate and emotionally nuanced. But soon descends into manufactured melodrama and forced emotionalism for the sake of “art”. The real tragedy is that much of the film is a meticulously framed film filled with talented actors giving their all.
Directed by Kornel Mundruczo and written by his partner Kata Weber, the film is an attempt to explore the grief of a loss of a child and the lingering trauma. Based on the couple’s real-life tragedy the movie begins remarkably measured and impeccably directed.
The first 30 minutes or so of Pieces of a Woman promise a breathtaking and nuanced look at a couple dealing with grief. Mundruczo and Weber introduce us to Sean (Shia LeBeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby), happy and excited for the arrival of their first baby. Sean is a construction worker and Vanessa is an executive of some kind or other.
Mundruczo, along with his cinematographer, Benjamin Loeb, and Weber’s script tell us everything we need to know in a short amount of time. Weber’s script, in particular, does a wonderful job of giving us little hints as to who these characters are, merely by how they talk. For example, Sean is one of those guys who refers to him and his pregnant wife as a “tribe”. “It’s us, the tribe that matters.” Within seconds of seeing LeBaouf’s Sean interact with Martha’s family as her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) buys them a minivan, we can’t help but see his blinding insecurity.
Weber’s dialogue walks that fine line where it’s not quotable but it’s not so bland as to be boring. Which is to say it is authentic in that rare way in which Martha and Sean reveal themselves without drawing attention to how they talk. The characters talk in a way that rings of a rare authenticity in how they repeat themselves or in how couples are more candid with each other than they are with other people.
We find out that Sean is a recovering alcoholic and that Martha’s mother is well off and has a tendency to help more than Sean is comfortable with. Martha, on the other hand, seems less concerned with how others perceive them while also acutely aware of how her husband reacts to others. In a span of ten minutes, Mundruczo and Weber, have told us everything we need to know without beating us over the head. A lesser film would have spent twice as long telling us half as much.
Martha’s birth lasts for almost half an hour and it’s gripping. Mundruzco and Loeb glide the camera smoothly around at a slow pace so you never quite notice it’s moving around. The midwife Eva (Molly Parker) enters the scene and whatever panic that had started to build is instantly soothed away. The three actors under Mundruczo’s direction are lost in the roles, it’s as if the camera isn’t there, and it’s almost breathtaking to witness such nuanced and effortless acting free of theatricality.
Mundruczo and Weber focus on the home birth and the way they capture the three people in a moment is a feat that had the film ended there would have been masterful. But the film, while emotionally authentic, suffers from moments of artistic pretentiousness. Sean has called an ambulance because Eva is worried about the baby’s breathing. Shortly after the ambulance arrives and then the title card comes up on the screen.
Just before the screen goes black the camera holds on the ambulance which has just arrived, the sirens blaring into the night. The cut to the title of the movie shatters any emotional buildup the movie had built and renders the previous gut-wrenching scene somewhat shallow. It is such a show of ego that it shatters the mood and all but pushes reset on everything that had happened before.
Such theatricality is at odds with the cinema verite style the filmmakers had endeavored to create, and until that moment, had done so quite successfully. After the title appears, the movie becomes something else entirely. It becomes a fractured cliche-ridden movie utterly divorced from its grounded emotionally raw beginnings.
Sean, who seemed so grounded and multifaceted, becomes an emotionally distant jerk with moments in which he has violent outbursts. It is a role LeBeouf has done so often that even casting him seems cliche. LeBeouf, while never phoning it in, also appears to be playing the same character he has played countless times before without any real new variations.
Kirby’s Martha who had come into such sharp focus in the beginning slowly begins to fade into a caricature of a grieving woman. Cold, argumentative, though handling their baby’s death better than Sean. Yet, Kirby’s Martha finds grace and ugliness in Martha. She doesn’t play her like a raw nerve so much as a string which has been plucked one too many times.
Weber’s dialogue goes from mundane to sounding like it is written. The way characters talk changes to a style that calls attention to itself. “Why, you trying to disappear my kid?”
Likewise, Mundruczo’s direction, while never sloppy, becomes heavy-handed. Combined with Weber’s script which begins to pile on, plot upon plot, onto a story that is in no way built to sustain them, Piece of a Woman which started so masterfully begins to reveal itself to be built on a shaky foundation. Sean predictably falls off the wagon and has an affair with Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook). Suzanne is also their attorney who is suing Eva for the death of their child.
Take the scene in which Suzanne and Sean first meet. It is so telegraphed, that it feels like a slap in the face. Suzanne calls Sean into her office and they shake hands and introduce themselves. Sean then rushes back to her lobby to get the papers he brought. The camera stays on Suzanne as she watches after him before looking at her empty office. Snook’s face speaks volumes as she all but smiles to herself.
Pieces of a Woman spends so much time with things like Sean having an affair, or Martha going out dancing and kissing a random stranger, that it never explores the grief it purports to want to explore. If that’s not enough there’s even a subplot about Burstyn’s Elizabeth who seems to be showing signs of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t even mentioned the subplot about Sean intimidating Martha’s brother-in-law car salesman Chris (Ben Sfadie), into committing fraud.
Because of his alcoholism, Sean is losing money which leads to an almost comical scene of Sean threatening Chris to take back the minivan and give him the money. Chris tries to explain that’s not how any of this works but eventually, the two work out a scheme whereby they will claim the minivan has a defect and return it to the factory.
After this scene, it is never brought up again. To be fair it is briefly mentioned once. But only in passing and it seems to have no actual effect or bearing to anything.
Pieces of a Woman is a movie that is obsessed with manufacturing drama where none is needed. For a movie in which we witness a woman give birth only to lose her child shortly after it seems remarkably uninterested in exploring the complex emotions of grief and how it can haunt us. Or, should I say, it does but through a myriad of ultimately shallow drama exercises in which every emotional outburst feels telegraphed or unearned.
Even the great Ellen Burstyn, who has a monologue, in which she begs Martha to stop trying to avoid dealing with her daughter’s death, can’t quite save a tortured monologue in which talks about, of all things, the Holocaust, and how Elizabeth’s mother taught her to be brave. It is a moving scene. But the style of the dialogue, again, is at odds with the rest of the movie.
Weber’s words start to feel less authentic and more like words that feel and sound written. The more the characters talk the more they begin to slide into melodrama. Elizabeth tells Sean, shortly after her Holocaust speech. “I never really liked you. It wasn’t because you were poor-”. To which Sean proceeds to tell Elizabeth why she never liked him. When characters start talking for other characters halfway through the movie, it’s time to start packing it in.
For a movie based on a true story, it is remarkably evasive, filled with characters with the flimsiest and most shallow of motivations. Like a stone, it all but sinks a terrific performance from Kirby. Despite all my issues with the film, Kirby’s performance is top shelf as she vainly finds ways of finding the truth amongst all the hackneyed tropes.
Mundruczo sustains the tone. But he can’t keep all the spinning plates going. Nor, can he adequately explore the main thrust of his theme. I recognize all these little distractions are meant to be the character’s way of trying to not focus on the grief. But it never comes across that way. Towards the end, we finally get to the trial of Eva. A trial that has been talked about, hinted at, and discussed, throughout the movie.
The courtroom scene shows promise as once again the director and script come into perfect harmony. Loeb’s camera expertly frames every moment in perfect harmony with the emotion Mundruczo and Weber are trying to capture. But it ultimately fails because, much like their characters, the filmmakers have avoided interrogating their grief-stricken trauma. So, when Martha has her moment of epiphany, despite Kirby’s terrific performance, it feels hollow. Sad, because Kirby at that moment looking at the photo of her holding her daughter gives one of her best performances I’ve ever seen her give.
Pieces of a Woman is at best riddled with cliches and at worst immature. It feels as if the filmmakers are holding back and instead of taking refuge in well-traveled Hollywood short-cuts. Whatever the case the film never gels and the promising beginning is left to languish as an unfulfilled promise.
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