Life partners and creative duo Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber, known for idiosyncratic work such as White God and Jupiter’s Moon, have tapped into a highly personal story with their latest effort, Pieces of a Woman. The film, which follows a young couple in the aftermath of a tragedy during a homebirth, clearly comes from a familiar source. Opening with one of the most captivating sequences of any motion picture of the last few years, the intimacy in a story not usually seen in a major motion picture — of this magnitude at least — creates an empathetic experience that unfortunately burns through it’s poignancy long before the credits roll.
We meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a young couple living in Boston expecting their first child together. Ready as ever to become parents, they settle on a delivery via homebirth. We experience the evening of the homebirth in real-time through a magnificent near-30 minute continuous long-take with no visible cuts. Capturing the intimacy of childbirth makes for an already gripping experience, but when things go awry, the sequence turns shattering; a feeling that lingers throughout the remaining runtime. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for the filmmaking duo, alongside cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (Mandy), that stands as a stunning piece of cinema. The sequence lays the groundwork for the rest of the film, but as the film moves past the opening act, much of the built-up dramatic tension largely deflates.
As we find the characters struggling to cope after their loss, both Mundruczo and Weber are unable to find avenues to keep the drama afloat, often stranding the film in stale melodrama. The script often repeats many of the same beats to lesser results, numbing the power of those first 30 minutes. Character motivations feel unnatural, adding an unfortunate phoniness to the material. A subplot that emerges from the second half goes nowhere and only serves to extend the already bloated 127 minute runtime. A climactic courtroom sequence fails to register any semblance of reality the filmmakers strive so hard to ground. Mundruczo and Weber also lay on thick some heavy-handed symbolism that never works. Even the films final sequence, while thematically sound, causes more groans than tears.
What primarily holds the film together is Vanessa Kirby’s divine screen presence. Known for her turn in the Netflix series The Crown and in action faire such as MI: Fallout and Hobbs and Shaw, Kirby gives a raw, soul-baring performance that single-handedly carries Pieces of a Woman during it’s thudding wheel-spinning. Kirby infuses the character with a stark melancholy through the smallest nuances or a fleeting glance that balances the cold, emotionless void the character attempts to front as. You simply can’t take your eyes off of her, even when the film around her scrambles for consistent resonance.
Ellen Burstyn, in her best role since Requiem For a Dream as Martha’s steel-hearted mother, delivers a wrenching monologue that provides the film with a much-needed resuscitation. While Burstyn benefits from portraying the films most well-rounded character, the Oscar-winner nevertheless gives some powerful work that fits well alongside Kirby’s breakout turn.
Given the material and it’s personal stamp, it’s a shame Pieces of a Woman is unable to sustain much of its initial power. The stunning birth sequence is flawlessly executed and both Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn give the film a real pulse, but the scattered, phony melodrama derails much of the impact Mundruczo and Weber set out to deliver.