Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczó (2014's White God) has returned with his latest feature, the Netflix drama Pieces of a Woman. Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmy Fails and Ellen Burstyn, Pieces focuses on a Boston couple who lose their newborn at birth and the aftermath of that loss.
Interestingly, Pieces was written by Mundruczó’s partner, Kata Wéber, as the pair experienced the real-life loss of their own child. Pieces was originally a 2018 play, which ultimately was adapted for the screen.
If nothing else, Pieces will be remembered best for its stunning, riveting and shocking 30-minute prologue. During those 30 minutes, the entire spectrum of emotions emerge – joy and anticipation for the arrival of Martha Weiss (Kirby) and Sean Carson’s (LaBeouf) baby; the jealousy Sean feels towards Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Burstyn), who just bought the couple a minivan; the anxiety when Martha goes into labor; and finally the dread when things go wrong after Martha gives birth to their daughter.
Keep in mind - viewers may want to prepare for the prologue. It’s intense enough to induce strong emotional and physical reactions to the point where some may not be able to handle it.
Using long tracking shots, some close-ups and a faithful recreation of a home delivery, Mundruczó sets the bar high with his prologue. As the tension rises (and, boy, does it rise), viewers will be left holding their breath. But with a running time of 128 minutes, the remaining 98 minutes struggle to match that intensity.
That’s where Mundruczó’s latest hits a wall - Pieces couldn’t sustain that level of energy and there are a few reasons why.
Martha and Sean are obviously crushed their newborn was alive for mere minutes. The pair mourn differently, though, which is fine and understandable.
Martha, who’s suppressing her anger and depression, goes into a funk where nothing matters. She’s out all night, the dishes are piled up, she shows up for work disheveled, distracted and ultimately not all there. Kirby, with little dialogue, does an amazing job as Martha – she’s one of the best reasons to watch Pieces.
Sean is the more outwardly expressive one, so his pain turns into aggression. He yells and cries – actions which are highlighted when they visit the coroner. Sean battled addiction in the past but has been sober for six years beforehand. Now his sobriety is threatened, and Sean’s aggression is redirected towards Martha.
Mundruczó’s depiction of the aftermath, though, didn’t delve deep enough into either’s pain. The relationship begins to crumble, but viewers only see touches of the issues the pair endure separately and together.
Pieces wasn't able to dig deeper because of an unusual wrinkle – the midwife who assisted with the delivery, Eva (Molly Parker), was blamed for Martha & Sean’s baby’s death. There was legal battle, resulting in some courtroom scenes, drawing attention away and ultimately undermining Martha’s and Sean’s grieving. It also undermines what should’ve been the film’s true focus – Martha coping with the loss and learning to live alongside tragedy.
One glaring issue is LaBeouf himself and Sean’s unconscionable actions towards Martha. In lieu of LaBeouf’s being accused of sexual battery by singer FKA Twigs (who filed a lawsuit against the actor); stylist Karolyn Pho (LaBeouf’s ex-girlfriend who was named in Twigs’ court filing) and singer Sia, Sean’s mistreatment of Martha makes it difficult to separate fantasy from reality, performance from sheer neglect. It’s a huge black mark that’s difficult to overcome.
Pieces of a Woman is best viewed for excellent performances (four cast members take turns showcasing their acting skills), specifically from Kirby (who would've thought that burping, presumably on command, is resume-worthy?) and Burstyn, whose Elizabeth is passively cruel and unlikeable.
There pieces which form a poignant portrait of grief - some isolated scenes validate that notion. But ironically, the film fell to pieces after its prologue.
Pieces of a Woman originally premiered on September 4th, 2020 at the 77th Venice International Film Festival (where Kirby won the festival's best actress award), released in select theaters on December 30th, 2020 and premiered on Netflix on January 7th, 2021.
3.5 stars out of 5