Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 6th, 2021
Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.
From the Hungarian writing/directing duo of Kata Wéber and Kornél Mundruczó, who brought us the gripping 2014 White God, comes Pieces of a Woman. It’s set not in their native land but in Boston, Massachusetts, where we follow the sometimes moving, if often bloated and overwrought, drama of a couple torn apart by a home-birth tragedy. Initially effective in its showcase of brutal and raw emotion, the movie quickly devolves into what feels like a series of long, improvised scenes that should have been both better scripted and edited. At just over two hours, Pieces of a Woman feels far longer, probably because we wallow in unnecessary sidebars that add nothing to the central conflict. Still, Vanessa Kirby (Mr. Jones), in the lead, delivers a searing performance, almost making the entire affair worth watching. Almost, but not quite.
Another factor in the film’s disfavor is its unfortunate casting of Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy), whose recent sexual abuse of former partner FKA Twigs just came to public light in December (thanks to Twigs, who filed suit against him). Though I have liked LaBeouf in the past, it’s impossible to watch him here without thinking of those allegations, even if his character, if flawed, is not consistently violent (though there is one disturbing scene that especially resonates today). Not even the addition of Ellen Burstyn (The House of Tomorrow) in the ensemble can rescue the narrative from LaBeouf’s negative associations.
Kirby plays Martha, a very pregnant thirtysomething who, as the story begins, is preparing to welcome her daughter, with partner Sean (LaBeouf), into the world. When her water breaks, she and he are disappointed that their designated midwife can’t make it, too busy as she is with another labor. Instead, substitute Eva (Molly Parker, 1922) shows up, and though she appears competent, at the outset, things don’t go as planned. For the first thirty minutes, Pieces of a Woman offers a well-shot, compelling profile of the act of giving birth, complete with fluids, pain, moans and more. It’s what follows that is far less riveting. As an unintended marker of where the film goes south, the title card comes up just at this moment.
That opener has devastating consequences for all involved. Martha’s mother (Burstyn), who dislikes Sean as much as the rest of the world now hates LaBeouf, wishes he would just go away. She also hopes Martha will take charge of the aftermath. But grief manifests itself differently in different people, and for the next ninety minutes, we see a variety of such permutations, some of greater interest than others. Eventually, we arrive in a courthouse, where Wéber and Mundruczó do a kind of justice to cinematic trials of movies past, but not to any real-world tribunal I have ever witnessed. If you like your testimony delivered in a manner no actual judge would ever allow, Pieces of a Woman has you covered.
It’s really too bad that there is so much amiss here, given where we start and the power of Kirby’s acting. It’s sad that the dramatic pieces of her woman are there, but scattered. Perhaps that beginning half hour should have been the total of it, submitted as an Oscar short. But no, there’s more, and then more again, complicated human emotions made simultaneously far too simple and far too baroque. Burstyn’s role doesn’t help. In fact, with most of the incidental characters, including a prosecutor who has no business either being in the story or in the trial, we long for their excision, as they only gum up the works. Then again, they populate the frame, and the less LaBeouf, the better, I suppose.