Pieces of a Woman Review
The act of childbirth is one of the most natural, yet traumatic things that can happen to a woman in her lifetime. Our bodies are designed to create a tiny human from scratch but to get them into this world is often a violent, painful and ugly affair. There is beauty to childbirth as it’s also an heroic act and as seen in Kornél Mundruczó’s English-language debut Pieces of a Woman, it can be a reassuring, powerful event between a couple, in this case played by Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby.
Kirby’s Martha goes into labour one night and she and her husband Sean had planned on a home birth in order to go on the baby’s terms. Their midwife can’t make it so a replacement is sent in the form of Molly Parker’s Eve, who stays calm and collected, helping Martha through the ordeal the best she can. Her best isn’t enough though and the night ends in tragedy. Martha and Sean’s relationship quickly begins to unravel as Martha’s mother Elizabeth demands the couple take legal action, but Martha struggles with the idea and coming to terms with her loss.
After a few establishing scenes, Mundruczó stages an impressive, immersive 22-minute one-take scene of Martha going through labour. It’s here that Pieces of a Woman is at its best, thanks to the flawless design and rhythm of the scene as well as LaBeouf and Kirby’s performances. Kirby especially is such a revelation here; she turns in an unfussy, authentic and raw work, burping and groaning her way through the monstrous event.
Kirby retains her compelling momentum throughout, even if Mundruczó can’t make the rest of the film as dynamic and interesting as the event that kickstarts the narrative. Kirby, such an underlooked actress, gives a career-best performance; she is ugly, strong, broken and wilful, effortlessly and honestly portraying a woman on a downward spiral. Martha is attempting to find herself and her purpose again after facing an unspeakable loss.
LaBeouf is equally capable. He provides important support for Kirby from the sidelines and finds surprising vulnerability within his performance, but in light of recent revelations watching him on-screen is conflicting. He comes across as explosive, yet gentle, frustrated, but human, but knowledge of how those same emotions has turned into abuse and toxic behaviour in real-life, causing women emotional and physical harm, makes watching Pieces of a Woman a difficult experience. LaBeouf is clearly a talented actor, specifically because of his intensity and ability to disappear into his roles, but it’s exactly those attributes that also make him a monster in the real world and it now casts an ugly shadow over everything he is attached to.
Together with Kirby, the two actors create lived-in moments between Martha and Sean. It feels natural and believable, but the film hits a road block when it turns into a melodrama. Ellen Burstyn’s Elizabeth feels especially calculated with award nominations in mind. Her dementia and memory problems do not seem to add much to the narrative and feel overlooked and undercooked by the end. She delivers one sizzling, resonating monologue, but the character doesn’t otherwise leave an impression.
Mundruczó knows his way around a scene and for the most part, Pieces of a Woman looks gorgeous. The harmony between image, sound and purpose is almost intoxicating at its best, but towards the end, Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber seriously lose their way and the film transforms into a cliched, boring, predictable courtroom drama and an almost cringe-worthy final scene. It almost undoes all the otherwise powerful work put in by the cast and crew, but it
Pieces of a Woman is in select US cinemas December 30 and available to stream on Netflix from January 7, 2021.