By Tyler Gibson
The loss of a child is a gut-wrenching tragedy, and it’s commendable Hungarian filmmakers Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber have bravely told their story. However, good intentions cannot elevate lousy filmmaking, and Pieces of a Woman depressingly wallows in grief instead of examining it.
Told in roughly three broad strokes, the film’s first act details the unraveling of a horrifying home birth. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star as Martha and Sean, a loving couple on the verge of becoming parents. Ellen Burstyn is Elizabeth, Martha’s abrasive mother who haunts the couple like a ghost. Using this event’s aftermath to shift narrative gears, the film listlessly and repetitively drags our three characters through transparent and obnoxious scenarios devoid of nuance or pure observation. Martha becomes a sheepish shell of herself, aimlessly taken aback when coming in direct contact with a child. At the same time, a dependent Sean grows more hostile and sexually violent towards his aloof wife. The script almost condones Sean’s behavior since he’s interpreted as sympathetically needy while simultaneously milking Martha’s interactions with children to an almost embarrassing degree. A metaphorical discussion of The White Stripes is notably awkward, and the inclusion of an apple stumbles as symbolism. The third act remodels itself as a courtroom drama, and the result is histrionic and improbable.
Mundruczo brings out the worst of an already shoddy screenplay with counterproductive directorial tactics. While the thirty-minute home birth sequence has been widely heralded for carrying the appearance of a long take, it’s unprincipled. What should be hectic and intense is improper with obvious digitally-hidden edits and unnatural performances grasping to hit their measured cues. This posturing expression of European arthouse maximalism creates a dry, miserable viewing experience and misdirects the cast. Kirby, LaBeouf, and Burstyn all give exasperating, “capital A” acting performances. While it’s logical her character would be grief-stricken, a lifeless Kirby is controlled by empty writing. Not once does she endeavor to shade Martha with layers of dimension, instead content to revel in dim limbo. Why paint her face with emotion when the outrageous exposition does the important talking for her? LaBeouf exaggerates with hulking Brando-esque mannerisms, losing any tenderness under a mask of a “serious” performance. Ellen Burstyn is a legend, but she gives a career-worst performance in Pieces of a Woman. The cartoonish character does no favors, and Burstyn distastefully collapses under the crushing weight of being forced to deliver one of the most cringe-inducing, insipid monologues ever written. On brand for Mundruczo, it’s filmed in a static closeup that’s desperately tailor-made for (undeserved) award recognition.
Pieces of a Woman was clearly a personal and cathartic atonement for its creators, but that doesn’t make it a good film. It’s quite ugly and should be scrutinized as belabored instead of celebrated as bold.