Pieces of a Woman is a disappointing drama that runs out of quality storytelling material only about a quarter of the way into the film’s run time.
Sometimes you go into a film convinced you’re going to love it, and it’s all the more frustrating when it leaves you cold. My second child, a daughter, was born just a week before I had the chance to see Pieces of a Woman. I went in mentally prepared for the story of a couple struggling with the loss of a newborn daughter to absolutely destroy me; instead, I left annoyed and disappointed.
I absolutely adored director Kornel Mondruczo’s White God, basically a canine Dawn of the Planet of the Apes filled with real dogs. It was a chilling and humane take on the creature takeover genre. I was curious to see how his empathetic approach to genre material would translate to a tragic two-hander. Stars Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf are personal favorites, and it was impossible not to notice the awards season heat Kirby has generated coming out of her Best Actress win at the Venice Film Festival.
The film’s strength is in its opening arc, a long one-shot that sees the film’s couple go from labor to delivery to tragedy in a truly harrowing sequence. It was one of the more enervating and realistic birthing scenes in a recent film. Mondruczo’s considerable skill at effectively generating tension is on full display as little signs of concerns begin to stack upon one another until they coalesce into the sequences’s inevitable tragedy. If the film ended right here, I’d have nothing but praise. Alas, there is quite a way to go.
Here’s the first problem – I did not buy Kirby and LaBeouf as a couple for a single moment. This is a big dilemma when their dynamic forms the heart of the film. LaBeouf, playing down-market Brando as a reformed alcoholic labor foreman on a bridge construction project, never once seems like the sort of fellow Kirby would have swiped right on, let alone moved in with and had a family. Their chemistry never seems right – though the film’s focus on the aftermath of a lost child certainly factors into the dynamic. It’s lightly implied that Kirby’s character dated a rougher fellow to spite her over-involved mother but the film never sells the notion. LaBeouf’s performance never dials down from the more arch level he begins at to Kirby’s human scale, and the comparison does him no favors.
Vanessa Kirby elevates the material about as well as anyone could. Even in the film’s worst written moments, she never fails to achieve grace notes of humanity. She modulates between BIG and small moments effectively and she ably depicts the debilitating physical and emotional strains of such a loss in a way not oft explored in film. She is truly an oasis in a desert.
Ellen Burstyn shows up as Kirby’s relatively nefarious mother. The part simply does not work at all – I cannot imagine anyone would speak to a daughter as she does here – but Burstyn sure sells the hell out a monologue that is one of the more egregious, and out of nowhere, Holocaust survivor narratives I can recall an actor performing. The rest of the supporting cast, including comedian Iliza Schlesinger, Sarah Snook (Succession), and a Safdie brother (Good Time), are able performers left with underdeveloped roles.
Most damning of all are the film’s courtroom scenes (Pieces of a Woman builds to a courtroom climax trying the baby’s midwife for manslaughter). I cannot turn off the reality that my day job is at a Manhattan law firm. I don’t mind when a film heightens the often boring realities of a judicial proceeding for dramatic effect. I do object when a film creates a new method of trial practice utterly divorced from reality just to shoehorn in some dialogue the writer would like Kirby to work miracles with. Leaving aside that nearly every question Kirby is asked during the trial is objectionable, the tactics and viewpoints of the lawyers defy good sense and good practice. It’s as though the writer never once thought how a juror would actually view the points being made by the advocates. Kirby’s speech to conclude her testimony is a mistrial for the ages – even Raymond Burr would blush at the way the case concludes. The writer’s lazy treatment of courtroom procedures bespeaks the poor grasp of the human dramas at play here.
Pieces of a Woman premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 12, 2020. It is now available to stream on Netflix.