Grief is a common cinematic jumping off point. When a character experiences a loss, the fallout from that loss can propel people in varying directions and at varying severity. Director Kornel Mundruczo’s Pieces of a Woman takes this idea to its farthest extremes and the result is a well-acted, but poorly executed stew of cliches and lazy metaphors.
Vanessa Kirby stars as Martha, who is expecting her first child with her husband Sean (Shia LeBeouf). Martha and Sean want a home birth and contact their midwife. Their chosen midwife is unavailable, so Eva (Molly Parker) arrives at their home as a substitute. Following the harrowing birth, all seems well until the baby turns blue and an ambulance is called. The child does not survive.
The first 30 minutes of the film are harrowing and filled with tension. The home birth is filmed in one continuous take and captures the chaos, worry and challenges of this situation. It is expertly crafted. Unfortunately, the film has another 90 minutes that cannot live up to the opening 30 and never come close.
Martha walks around numb to the world. She doesn’t have much of a reaction to anything and has a strong obsession with apples. Despite having no baby, there are still the after effects of giving birth that she has to navigate. Eva has been arrested and while Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is pushing for justice, Martha drifts through without much of an opinion. Meanwhile, Sean is angry and lashes out in every way he can. In addition to his loss, he is navigating his sobriety as well as Elizabeth’s downward looks upon his station.
Members of Martha’s family drift in and around their lives. Her sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger) is trying to be supportive, her cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) is also a lawyer who is prosecuting Eva, while Elizabeth continues to be involved whether Martha wants it or not. Everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to know how Martha is doing, but she is uninterested. Meanwhile, Sean and Martha grow apart as the days go on.
Around every corner are apple metaphors and planting seeds. Around another corner is the building of a bridge. Attempts are made to feel something. It’s all very cliched and lazy. Screaming matches occur at various parts with no one feeling like an actual functioning human being. Martha is a zombie, Sean is a mess. There is no in-between.
Kirby tries her best to internalize her pain, but is saddled with the explosions of emotion based on how the film needs her to act. Burstyn is in the same boat, acting out only when it is her big scene. Elizabeth’s actions are not one of a loving mother, but one who needs to move the narrative forward and necessitates a big scene. Lots of monologues for monologue’s sake. Both do a good job, but the film cripples their characters at every turn.
LeBeouf is completely lost. Heavily bearded and strangely accented, he never comes across as in any way interested in Martha and you struggle to imagine how they came together in the first place. His acting could be described as brave, but it comes across more as foolishly reckless than calculated.
The film concludes with a tacked-on ending and unsubtle metaphors. No character makes logical sense and no one comes to any sort of resolution. Despite strong performances from Kirby and Burstyn, the film is a narrative mess. Instead of directing with confidence, Mudruczo directs with arrogance and feigned depth. What could have been a meditation on loss, ends up being a heavy-handed parable about…apples and bridges.