Pieces of a Woman

‘Martha’s fine.  She’s always fine,’ bridge builder Sean (Shia LaBeouf) assures a well wisher, although clearly her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who buys the couple a new family sized vehicle from her other daughter’s husband Chris ("Good Times'" Benny Safdie), doesn’t feel the same way about him.  Martha (Vanessa Kirby, "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw") herself appears to have the utmost faith in her partner as she goes into labor, but midwife Eva (Molly Parker) begins to see signs of a baby in distress and after the resulting tragedy Sean and Elizabeth find themselves left with “Pieces of a Woman.”

Laura's Review: C-

Back in 2014, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and his scripter Kata Wéber made a global splash with their allegorical film "White God.”  Their 2017 follow-up, “Jupiter’s Moon,” wasn’t as well received or as widely released but their latest has had more recognition since the 2020 Venice Film Festival Jury awarded Vanessa Kirby their Best Actress prize.  That doesn’t tell the entire story though.  While Kirby’s performance is notable, “Pieces of a Woman” is unsatisfactory cinema, its character motivations muddled, its use of Norway as a stand-in for Boston unconvincing, its resolution a head scratching letdown. 

The film’s most notable element is the real-time birth which "Mandy" cinematographer Benjamin Loeb shoots in one long, unbroken take.   As Martha’s labor progresses, the couple is distressed to learn that the midwife they have been prepping with is unavailable, working another delivery, but Eva steps in and a rapport is quickly established.  But we see Eva begin to panic.  Then she instructs Sean to call 911.  A baby girl arrives and all seems well for a minute or two until Eva notices the child in Martha’s arms has begun to turn blue…

And so the woman we saw feted with an office baby shower on 9/17 confounds her coworkers when she returns on 10/9.  Urged on by Elizabeth, legal charges are brought against Eva, but mom is unsuccessful in her attempt to thwart Martha from donating the baby’s body to medical science and there is a scene choosing the wording for the child’s tombstone, Martha walking out.  Sean, sober for six years, begins to drink and engages in an affair with their lawyer, Suzanne ('Succession's' Sarah Snook).  Martha, too, goes out partying with coworker Max (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jimmie Fails) and is unfaithful.  There is an uncomfortable family dinner gathering at Elizabeth’s which includes Suzanne and ends with Elizabeth using her wealth to manipulate Martha’s life once more.  But when all is said and done, somehow that contentious relationship between mother and daughter appears to evaporate.

There are attempts at nuance and symbolism, most notably the apple seeds Martha gets to sprout, but nothing adds up in a recognizably human way.  Everything about the film’s location screams Europe, from the bridge where we first meet Sean to an obviously foreign supermarket.  The oddly assembled cast sets one to wondering just what it was about this project that drew one of the NYC filmmaking Safdie brothers and West Coast based Fails to Norway to play such small roles (an informal global filmmaking summit?).  Burstyn’s character is unlikable and Kirby’s inscrutable.  Inscrutable is also the word for Snook’s character, who is always smiling, even when engaging in ugly sex with Sean.

I can only imagine the pain involved in losing a child one has been carrying for nine months, but “Pieces of a Woman” is a wallow in unfocussed actings out which only occasionally resemble grief and from which only Molly Parker achieves sympathy.

Robin's Review: C

"Pieces of a Woman" premieres on Netflix on 1/7/2021.