The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - PIECES OF A WOMAN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - PIECES OF A WOMAN

pieces of a woman review
A young couple disintegrates following the loss of their child in a botched home birth.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó

Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

pieces of a woman poster

Orson Welles famously described Hollywood as "The biggest electric train set any boy ever had." For decades, European filmmakers have emigrated to Tinseltown, drawn by the lure of huge budgets and filmmaking on a scale they could only have dreamed of in their home countries. It wasn't always so. In the 1930s, a wave of filmmakers fleeing the rise of European fascism found themselves working on a smaller scale in the US than they had in the film industries of Central and Eastern Europe, which at the time rivalled Hollywood.

There are parallels to this era in Kornél Mundruczó's first dabbling in American filmmaking, Pieces of a Woman. It's hard to think of many recent Hollywood movies that rival the Hungarian auteur's last two films, White God and Jupiter's Moon, in terms of scale. If any modern European filmmaker seems like a natural fit for Hollywood blockbusters, it's Mundruczó (and like his '30s predecessors, he's likely left Hungary for political reasons). Hell, with Jupiter's Moon, he's already made a superhero movie of sorts. It's odd then to see him make an intimate character study as his English language debut.

pieces of a woman review

There's little of the extravagance we've come to expect from the Hungarian on display here, save that is for the bravura sequence that takes up the opening quarter of his new film. In a couple of extended takes, Mundruczó details Martha (Vanessa Kirby) going into labour in her Boston home. Initially assisted solely by her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), Martha is joined by Eve (Molly Parker), a replacement for their usual midwife, who is busy with a labour elsewhere. After complications, their daughter is born, only to pass away within minutes.

It's a harrowing and effective setup for what ultimately plays out as a shallow, directionless study of grief. You get the feeling Mundruczó really wanted to film Pieces of a Woman's much talked about opening sequence, but couldn't find a story to justify it. The remainder of the film is confounding in its hollowness, devoid of insight into the psychological condition of its protagonists. Like a b-grade Broken Circle Breakdown, Martha and Sean find themselves divided on philosophical grounds, with the former wishing to donate their daughter's remains to science while the latter, along with Martha's interfering mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), wants a full religious burial. While Martha wants to simply move on, Sean and Elizabeth take legal action against Eve, who doesn't appear to have done anything wrong. Yet the movie never really gets any dirt under its fingernails in its half-assed exploration of such conflicts.

pieces of a woman review

Pieces of a Woman plays out its drama through a series of clichés and hammered home metaphors. If you've seen any movie about a grieving mother, you've essentially already seen Pieces of a Woman, as it has nothing to add to this sub-genre. Martha's grief is portrayed lazily through stock scenes of her staring at children on public transport, and of course that well worn trope of a troubled woman taking a bath. Sean retreats into sex with Martha's lawyer cousin (Sarah Snook), a dalliance thrown in cheaply to make us sneer at him, and one which I couldn't buy into. That said, I never bought Martha and Sean as a couple either. Nor could I accept the 88 year-old Burstyn as the mother of the 32-year-old Kirby.

The metaphors come thick and fast, with the film broken down into roughly monthly chapters, each opening with a shot of two sides of an under-construction bridge gradually inching towards each other. In the film's cheapest moment, Burstyn launches into a monologue about escaping the Holocaust. It's a well written and performed monologue mind you, but it comes out of nowhere, like a desperately exploitative pitch for awards glory.

pieces of a woman review

Mundruczó famously made a movie with a canine protagonist, and that dog was more human than any of the characters in his American debut. Kirby, LaBeouf and Burstyn all shoot for the moon here, but they simply can't make anything out of the hollow human husks they're saddled with. Kirby is unconvincing in the role of grieving mother, looking absolutely fabulous throughout, not even breaking a sweat during what is supposed to be a particularly intense labour and losing every shred of her weight gain in a mere three weeks.

Give Mundruczó the reins of the next Captain America movie and enough freedom to express himself and he'll likely reinvigorate staid Hollywood tentpole filmmaking with his arresting visual style. But telling the small, intimate story of two people struggling with a personal loss is something that requires a little more than impressive camera moves. In Pieces of a Woman, the pieces never quite fit together to form a satisfying picture.

Pieces of a Woman
 is on Netflix from January 7th.

2021 movie reviews