For all its other merits and flaws, you’re unlikely to see another film this year with an opening gambit as bold as that of Pieces of a Woman. A 22-minute unbroken tracking shot of a home birth, it’s a wildly ambitious piece of filmmaking from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo (making his English-language debut) that sets the stage with astounding technical skill, powerful performances, and sheer bravado. Though the rest of the film can’t match up to this astonishing first half hour, it’s the sort of stylish yet narratively vital showmanship that makes Pieces of a Woman’s problems a lot easier to forgive.
This home birth takes place in Boston, as well-off couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (the now-disgraced Shia LaBeouf, scrubbed from all the film’s marketing and awards campaigning) prepare to welcome their first baby. It’s an exceptionally well-done sequence, keeping us intimately involved throughout the labour without being voyeuristic, and it’s far, far more compelling than the obligatory sweat and screaming montages that most birth scenes end up as, giving Kirby and LaBeouf real room to perform. When things start going wrong, it’s terrifying, and as the inevitable final horror becomes clear, your heart sinks into your stomach.
We then cut to three weeks later, Martha forced back to work thanks to an inhumanely short grieving period and her family, from Sean to her manipulative mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) to her cretinous brother in law Chris (Benny Safdie), torn asunder by bereavement and the sniping blame game that comes with it. Kirby is phenomenal, grief and detachment flowing through her to devastating effect, and whenever the camera is on her, Pieces of a Woman is compelling. She elevates the material, even to the point that her personal costuming and make up shapes the film around her, her handling of the grief even extending to the camerawork, which is prowling and restless throughout. Martha floating through an uncomfortable dinner party, by turns furious and bewildered, is the sort of centrepiece scene that sweeps through awards season.
It’s very odd, then, that Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber choose to spend so much time away from Martha. Pieces of a Woman initially looks like it’s going to be a character piece, but it ends up with a very busy, and rather wonky, plot, full of infidelities, dodgy familial dealings, and a court case that never really convinces. Outside of Martha, characters’ motivations are foggy and scenes with Burstyn in particular seem very unsure of what tone they want to strike (it doesn’t help that she is clearly far too old to be Kirby’s mum, which is a consistent distraction).
A heavy-handed score and some iffy worldbuilding – pretty much every character in the film is somehow part of Martha’s family, and she appears to have zero friends to support her through her loss – further pulls you out of the film, and it’s always down to Kirby to drag you back into the wrenching emotions at hand. It’s easily the best performance of her career so far which, when combined with the film’s audacious first scene, should keep Pieces of a Woman in the Oscar conversation, even if there are some puddles of mediocrity to wade through before the credits roll.