Every so often a new film comes out, and you slowly realize you’ve seen it before. It might be a new plot, with new actors and new directors, but you’ve most certainly seen it before. It’s a glorified film school project made by a pretentious fop that utilizes SYMBOLS and METAPHORS and MOTIFS in ways that egregiously flaunt subtlety and taste in audaciously obnoxious ways. It’s the type of film that hopes to make a statement about the human condition, blah blah blah blah blah. When you sit through such a film, all you can hope for are performances that defy the material and can manage to move you in some capacity. That’s precisely the case with Pieces of a Woman, a film that desperately believes it’s one of the Great Dramas like Casavettes, Bergman, or Michael Haneke (who is more than guilty of his fair share of this “subgenre”), but really only works thanks to the performances of Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn.
Martha (Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are preparing to have their first child together. They’ve picked out the minivan, they’ve painted the nursery, and they’ve picked out the midwife. Excitement and nerves are in the air. But as the night wears on, things hit a snag. Their chosen midwife, Barbara, is stuck on call, and has to send a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker), and the baby’s heartbeat isn’t nearly as strong as it should be. Over the course of a truly harrowing and powerful 20-minute tracking shot, the couple and the midwife do everything they can to save the baby – and they do. But tragedy strikes almost immediately after. And in the coming eight months, as a legal trial grips the nation, a grief-stricken couple does everything in their power to keep it together, both for their failing relationship as well as their own personal well-being.
At the start, Pieces of a Woman really isn’t all that bad a film. In fact, the kinetic, bravura filmmaking of Kornél Mundruczó featured during the prologue is relatively astonishing, and as a short film it could stand tall as one of the best of the year. A thirty-minute sequence (all taking place before the title card) tells us everything we need to know about these characters, their personalities, and where they are in life. We get to live with Sean and Martha as they leave their jobs for the day and go to pick out a minivan. We see the little ways they interact with each other, the pride they feel in becoming parents (the little ways she lingers in a nursery, or the electric joy LaBeouf imbues as he shows off a framed portrait of the sonogram), and more importantly, we can feel the love they have for each other, which helps set up the rest of the film for the heart-wrenching drama of that love coming apart.
When Martha goes into labor, and Eva arrives on the scene, Mundruczó shifts to a truly stunning one-take sequence – a nearly-twenty minute unbroken experience that puts us front and center for the harrowing realities of this home birth gone wrong. Mundruczó keeps things lively with moments of honesty and wit (Martha can be heard bellowing “This is your fault, motherf*cker” toward Sean, which most first-time parents can relate to) before the rug comes out from under us – muffled sound as Eva’s face shifts from jovial to terrified, rushing around the apartment to locate objects and bring in paramedics, and the slow, painful transformation of a newborn from pale to blue within minutes. The camera never lets us breathe during this sequence, and the emotional toll it takes on we the viewer helps put us into a similar (but never the same) mindset as Martha as she realizes that something may very well be going wrong, but unable to tell exactly what through the pain. It’s tremendous filmmaking, and makes vast promises that any film would struggle to live up to.
Unfortunately, the film completely comes apart after that tour-du-force first act. While the acting consistently stays strong throughout the film’s run, Mundruczó’s direction and Kata Wéber’s script completely unravel into a stringy pile of clichés and masturbatory gestures (sometimes literally). In fact, after the first act, the grand guignol-esque misery reaches such heights as to border on camp, should your capacity of empathy run its course (mine did within forty five minutes). The script forces us through obvious beat after obvious beat, without remorse and seemingly without awareness of its own obviousness. From the minute it’s offhandedly revealed that Sean is a former addict who struggles with sobriety, you just know it’s only a matter of time before he relapses, and most likely in over-the-top fashion. When an affair inevitably occurs, it not only does so with a member of the family (who ALSO happens to be their lawyer in a criminal case, which seems grossly illegal, but I digress), but forces the characters to do the whole “pretending to meet each other for the first time” thing later on, to the bemusement of both the wife and the audience. Hell, the film is so trite that it even throws in the soap opera-inspired plot of “Here you go, Daughter’s Boyfriend. This is a check for you to leave and never come back.” By the time you reach a third-act moment of supposed-emotional growth that also doubles as a murder mystery twist, you’ll be so annoyed that any cathartic experiences coming from the actors’ performances will land with a light thud on the numb callouses that make up your heart and soul.
It’s a real shame, because there are several moments that do feel honest and raw and real. Moments like a series of close-ups on coworkers’ faces after Martha returns early from her leave of absence. Or the decision to keep the national trial squarely in the background (until the final act), showing us a look behind the curtain of the families we fetishize whenever pain is manipulated and objectified by the media for our malicious absorption. Or shots of a once-gorgeous modern home slowly falling apart from neglect and the gloom of depression. I’m especially impressed by the unique and pained experience of both partners cheating on their significant others because they desperately need to feel a connection, but can’t stand the touch of the other. That’s an angle I’m not sure I’ve seen in a film like this before, and it managed to invest me in what could have otherwise been a clichéd slog. Alas, these moments were not the thrust of the film, the way they would have in a 70s-era opus of drama and tragedy. Instead, they are mere glimpses at what could have been, as opposed to what is the film before us.
However, what pisses me off the most, far and away, is the obviousness of the metaphors. So many pretentious douchebags have permeated creative writing programs and films schools in recent years, having read one copy of How To Read Literature Like A Professor and padding their films and novels with metaphors and symbols so obvious a fourth-grader could decipher it. The film bookends each chapter in its runtime (we witness one day a month over the course of about eight months, did I mention that? Because it goes from interesting to grating real quick) with shots of water, the universal sign of femininity and childbirth. Similarly, there’s a bridge under construction that proceeds to grow with two sides coming together just as Martha’s relationship with Sean comes apart. Gee, I wonder what that could mean. And then there’s the metaphor that pisses me off the most: the apple.
At first, it wasn’t that bad: Martha munches on an apple before childbirth, and an apple core rots in her kitchen after a bad experience at the supermarket. But then it grows from there: apples permeate each shot; Martha describes her infant daughter as “smelling of apples;” and in the film’s final shot, a young girl picks an apple from a tree and begins to eat it. Gee, I wonder why Mundruczó litters this shot with apples? Why would someone choose to litter a film about the “pain and harsh realities of childbirth” choose the famous Christian imagery of the apple, which cursed women with the pain of childbirth for all eternity because of their sins? At least Coppola created his own symbol when he inserted the orange into The Godfather, for f*ck’s sake. I do not fault someone for inserting imagery into their film. Oftentimes it indicates intellect, or striving for something greater. But when you attempt to replace depth with metaphors as a gimmick, that’s no longer intelligence; that’s pseudo-intellectual masturbation, and you can shove that nonsense right back up your fedora-wearing ass.
This film would be a complete write-off if it weren’t for the performances – or, to be more honest with that statement, two specific performances. That would be the work of Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn, who elevate the material to the best of their abilities each and every chance they get. This is unabashedly Kirby’s film, and from the jump, she gives Martha everything she has to craft an honest, cathartic, lived-in performance. Kirby’s work in the labor scene alone is enough to earn her the Oscar nomination she will inevitably be receiving, giving a full-fledged physical transformation to a woman wracked with pain desperately trying to give life in extraordinary circumstances. Her work in this first act is vital, because the rest of the film – where her charm and will to live is completely dismantled – wouldn’t work if we weren’t given a chance to see how far she’d fallen emotionally. It’s a challenging role, and not all of the pieces work, due to the script she’s forced to work with. But when she’s given a chance to roll with the messy, weird, conflicting emotions of grief – like a drunk dance at a work party as the world around her crumbles – the film really sings.
Kirby is only outshone by her onscreen mother, the legendary actress Ellen Burstyn (whose internal, emotive work on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore certainly inspired Kirby’s take on her character), who may give her best performance to date as Elizabeth. In a year of sassy, judgy grandmothers galore, Burstyn’s shines through thanks to the master class in acting she’s clearly giving. Burstyn gives each line the zest it needs to sound honest, real, and deceptively shrewd, whether it’s an icy barb directed at a son-in-law she disapproves of or a pained declaration of grief at a daughter she secretly blames for withholding closure. What’s equally brilliant is that Burstyn also plays the role as a slowly-diminishing victim of dementia – something the film never overtly addresses, raising questions of whether this is an actual plot point or a brilliant piece of acting improvisation on Burstyn’s part (it’s likely the former, but I’d rather believe it’s the latter). In fact, as great as that opening sequence is, I’d wager the film actually reaches its emotionally and intellectual climax during a second-act fight between Burstyn and Kirby. Both actresses hurl angry, emotional barbs at each other, releasing months – years, even – of emotional rage, anguish, and tension, in a showy case of reactionary acting. Hell, look at Burstyn – her monologue is so pedantic as to sound like a fake theater-school audition speech, but she delivers it with such emotional range and heart that it f*cking feels real. That’s how good she is. She makes a clearly made-up speech about the Holocaust feel emotionally raw and true-to-life.
None of the other performances in the film are bad, per se. They just have the unfortunate duty of living up to the unbelievably high bar set by the leading actresses. Molly Parker doesn’t have much to do as the infamous midwife Eva after her first-act appearance, but she does a lot of terrific face acting that makes her not only important, but impeccable as well. Meanwhile, Iliza Schlesinger (yes, that Iliza Schlesinger) appears as Martha’s oft-overlooked older sister, and while she’s not necessarily bad, you can’t really focus on her acting (not that that’s always a bad thing) because you can’t help but wonder “Wait, why is Iliza Schlesinger in this?” Ditto for Schlesinger’s (I’m not even bothering to learn her character’s name, she might as well be named “Iliza Schlesinger”) onscreen husband, director/actor Benny Safdie, who hilariously plays the role as nebbishly as possible, making it hilarious that they still try to stick to the script’s depiction of the character as a former grunge musician. And while she gives the role her all, I’m personally unbelievably pissed that the film takes phenomenal Succession actress Sarah Snook and forces her to play the role of Pretty Lawyer Who Gets F*cked And Serves No Other Purpose. It’s not just offensively diminishing, and not just insulting to her talents, it’s a dumb cliché to boot.
Oh, and we inevitably have to get into the Shia LaBeouf of it all, because unfortunately he’s a major part of this film. This film was shot and released at festivals before the LaBeouf story broke, and it is impossible to watch the film not knowing what we know now. From an objective standpoint, LaBeouf is undeniably great. He’s got the same emotional depth that Kirby brings (albeit less of an arc), and he plays emotionally angry and mentally unstable perfectly opposite Kirby’s broken, mourning mother. However, it’s also hard to watch this role – as an abusive, mentally unstable drug addict who’s coming apart from his own demons – without thinking of his real-life accusations and shortcomings. Watching him struggle with mental illness and drug addiction is almost sickening to watch, and it’s hard not to think of FKA Twigs while he snaps and throws a balance ball at his partner’s face. And there’s a sequence of dark, horrific anguish that already would have been painful and controversial had we not known about these current accusations – now the sequence plays as tone-deaf and uncomfortable. I don’t really want to dwell much on this story and the actor in question – I only bring it up because it would be irresponsible to talk about this film without addressing it. All I can say is that I hope that Shia can get the help that he needs, and more importantly that he can provide restitution and restorative justice for the woman (or potentially women) he’s harmed due to his own toxic struggles.
Pieces of a Woman is a roller-coaster of emotions from beginning to end. It’s a film that goes from good to bad, from high to low, and from subtle to bombastic over the course of two-hours, and across uneven tracks. It’s a frustrating film to endure, as you hang on the performances of two actresses at the top of their game, but feel your eyes rolling or your anger mounting as the film hurls dumb plot points and angering “twists” at you around every corner. This is the type of film I can take in chunks, and that’s about it. Watch the first 30-minutes to learn how to make a movie. Watch the second-act dinner scene to learn how to act. And watch the rest of the film as it travels straight into an incinerator, never to see the light of day again. That’s how I feel about Pieces of a Woman, and hopefully the mediocrity of its existence will leave nothing more in my memory than the skillful acting that lives in its core.
Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix