From the outset, Pieces of a Woman doesn’t hold back. The latest Netflix awards hopeful, directed by Kornél Mundruczó and scripted by his wife Kata Wéber, focuses on a couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and their experience with a traumatic childbirth.
Almost immediately, we’re thrown into an impressive 24-minute-long depiction of the birth, which takes place in their Boston home. The scene is energetic yet makes for an uncomfortable watch, although LaBeouf eases the tension with his help – and terrible jokes. Meanwhile, Kirby delivers a lively and natural performance, and one that evokes empathy. We can sense her desperation to experience the perfect birth. However, tragedy soon occurs and paramedics are called to the scene, destroying the soon-to-be parents’ perfect moment.
But after such an energetic and heartfelt prologue, the rest of the film seems to lack spirit. Perhaps this is Mundruczó’s intention because of the subject matter. Or it could be that the director wanted to approach the topic tenderly rather than feeling the need to gloss it up or create action. After all, it’s based on the true story of Mundruczó and Weber losing a child. Nevertheless, Pieces of a Woman feels almost mundane at times.
As the film progresses, and the inescapable grief heightens, the once excited couple are now detached from one another. Whether it’s an argument over a picture on the wall or needing some time alone, the pair seem to have different ways of coping with tragedy.
We also see other relationships suffer, including the one between Martha and her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). There’s an obvious class divide between Elizabeth and Sean. Elizabeth is a well-to-do, refined woman and she appears to look down on Sean, a working class labourer. She is also a pushy, overbearing mother who is unable to take her daughter’s wishes into consideration and acts as the catalyst for the fight for justice that follows.
The establishing shots of the Charles River, the long takes and the focus on empty spaces are a glimpse of the tentative approach used in this film. Mundruczó offers a lot of room to reflect, whether that’s meant for the characters or for the audience.
The story is filmed in such a way that it feels true to life, so the use of symbolism is often quite jarring. The focus on apples is particularly heavy and takes us away from the realistic approach we’ve experienced for most of the film. It’s an odd place for subtext.
By sharing something incredibly personal, Mundruczó and Wéber have allowed this intimate and, at times, taboo subject to occupy a place on the screen.
Pieces of a Woman is available to stream on Netflix