CONTENT WARNING: There is a prolonged scene of sexual assault.
Pieces of a Woman is about grief. A couple, Martha and Sean, choose to have a home birth, but there are complications. Their doula does all she can, but after a couple of minutes of life, the child dies in her mother's arms. The rest of the film is how Martha's grief takes shape and how she pushes those closest to her farther and farther away. The film stars Vanessa Kirby, Shia LeBeouf, Iliza Schlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Jimmie Fails, and Ellen Burstyn. The film is directed by Kornél Mundruczó and is written by Kata Wéber. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
I dreaded watching this movie. Movies about grief are very difficult to watch and take so much emotional bandwidth. Yet, Pieces of a Woman left me entirely cold. My eyes remained dry and often wandered from the screen because it's very dull in its moroseness.
That dullness often comes from the way in which Martha's grief takes shape. She's not tearing her shirt in anguish, she's not constantly crying in the corners of her house, she's not often screaming at her loved ones. She's lost completely in her own mind with other people barely registering. The dullness in this case isn't a bad thing. Vanessa Kirby plays the disaffected woman so well. She's compelling in her inaction toward what others perceive as justice and necessary. I would have preferred so much more of a centrality to Martha's journey a more introspective film on her journey, but we aren't treated to that.
Unfortunately we are treated to the mess that is Sean. Sean's grief takes other forms as he gets angry, he weeps, he begs and he pleads, he bullies to get his way and he relapses into his chemical addictions. It was extremely difficult and eventually impossible to separate the art from the artist in these scenes. Recently, Shia LeBeouf has been accused of abusive behavior by FKA Twigs, his ex-girlfriend. Knowing what I do about LeBeouf's method acting, his need and willingness to get lost in a role, (he removed one of his own teeth for his role in Fury) I couldn't help but thinking he was using this role as an excuse for his behavior. Based on the fact that I can't imagine that the majority of his dialogue wasn't improvised, this idea is even more disconcerting and disturbing.
This especially when coupled with the prolonged scene of sexual assault as Sean tries to initiate sex with Martha and her body language clearly indicates she has no willingness to have sex. Pieces of a Woman is full of these long scenes without cuts. The birth scene, this scene, the sort of intervention scene, all are long, uninterrupted takes, which are pretty good technical feats, so kudos to director Kornél Mundruczó and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb for conceiving them, but when the action within is on the wrong player or misplaced in the scene, it's awkward.
These long takes often lead to the dullness because so often in the (sincerely it has to be improvised because of how out of place and innocuous it is) dialogue. Any tension that they hoped to create with these takes is moot because of how long they are and how the tension is buried so deeply into the banality of life. Even what's supposed to be the tensest scene, the birth, is ruined by the length of the scenes preceding it. I barely registered that anything was wrong and when I did there was only a moment before I went glassy eyed again because there are minutes between the dramatic moments, not seconds.
Pieces of a Woman is not a poorly made or acted film, but the parts can't make the whole any better. A film like this doesn't have to fit a mold, thankfully it was unpredictable, but in its unpredictability and spontaneity, it was so very dull. If a clip of the final moments of the trial scenes becomes available, watch that because Martha's speech is the most rational, impassioned plea for mercy I have ever seen, but don't try and watch this film. The wonderful parts are too few and far between.