Our Take: 2.5/5 Stars
The opening shots of Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s (“White God”) latest film, “Pieces of A Woman,” are commonplace enough. Sean (Shia LaBeouf, “Transformers”) wraps up his work day on a construction site. His very pregnant partner, Martha (Vanessa Kirby, “The Crown”), endures an office baby shower. The couple finalize the purchase of a car by Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, “The Exorcist”), who makes clear her dislike for Sean.
That night, Martha, who is determined to have a home delivery, goes into labor. What follows is an intimate depiction of her delivery, in one masterful 24-minute shot. The midwife, Eva (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) arrives, and at first, things seem to be going well. But the shot drags on and on, tension builds and things go horribly wrong.
Sirens wail in the distance as the sequence ends.
Following its shocking opening scenes, the film continues with a harrowing examination of Sean, Martha and Elizabeth as they deal with the grief and tragedy of losing a newborn baby. Sean spirals into addiction, abuse, and adultery. Proceedings begin against Eva, and Elizabeth encourages Martha to testify against the midwife in court in an effort to get some justice. Martha herself goes on with life, and she is icily, serenely fine. Kirby’s Oscar-worthy portrayal of a woman whose world falls apart is unnervingly real and impossibly intimate.
Unlike Sean, Martha doesn’t shatter, at least on the outside — she goes back to work, to the grocery story, to the bookstore, and if the constant reminders of what she’s lost bother her, she does not show it. When she and Sean go to the coroner to learn the cause of death, Sean storms out, cursing, with tears in his eyes. Martha gives the doctor a neutral “thank you.” But Kirby’s genius is that the viewer can watch as Martha’s cracks begin to show without ever really knowing what’s going on inside her head.
Opposite Kirby, LaBeouf is similarly convincing, but his character is considerably less compelling. In the initial scenes of the film, Sean plays a tender, if somewhat clumsy, father-to-be and a loving partner. But the tragedy that rips through his life brings out an ugly, oafish side as Martha drifts farther and farther away. Elizabeth condemns Sean throughout the movie, and by its end the viewer is inclined to believe that she was right about him all along. The film follows his spiral closely, but it still feels a bit disjointed — it is hard to reconcile the gentle giant from the beginning with the brute at the end.
The one-shot depiction of Martha’s delivery is unequivocally brilliant as it builds a sense of inevitability and authenticity that will come in handy when the events of the night are later recounted in a courtroom. But despite superb acting and Kata Wéber’s (“White God”) magnificent script, the film never quite lives up to its opening scene.
Mundruczó and Wéber are partners in real life, and their own experience with an infant death comes through in the tight exchanges between the characters, the long silences, even the choppy pacing. But one can not help but feel that, as gritty and personal as the film is, it still doesn’t go quite deep enough, telling masterfully but never quite showing.
The movie gets caught up in its own filmy-ness at the expense of a tighter plot: visually immaculate shots follow in quick succession, but the side stories feel random and even irrelevant; the repeated symbolism grows old fast. The film ends on a redemptive note, which is nice, but fails to deliver the emotional fulfillment or wrap up the story with the heaviness it needs.
“Pieces of A Women” is undeniably a gut-wrenching watch, but one walks away feeling like maybe it is not quite as gut-wrenching as it needed to be.
“Pieces of a Woman” is streaming now on Netflix.