Pieces of a Woman (Review)

If you’ve heard anything about Pieces of a Woman, chances are it is about the twenty-plus minute continuous shot of a traumatic home birth. It is an exceptional sequence, with masterful filmmaking in which the obtrusive camera movements add to the swell of tension and anxiety, while the unbroken shot further compounds this. It is a sequence that illustrates the power of cinema to present relevant realities, to immerse us in the subjective experience – to create empathy – in a way nothing else quite can. Alas, this is only one piece of this film, and the rest of its pieces are disparate and disappointing, lacking purpose or impact. If we are to learn anything from Pieces of a Woman, it is that one masterful piece doesn’t make for a great film – and, sadly, it doesn’t even make for a good one.

This Netflix release is about a birth that ends in tragedy, and what comes after that. It is hard to give more detail than this because, really, it is not very clear what Pieces of a Woman wants to be. It certainly wants to show us a tragic scenario that indicates the potential consequences of home births – and this, to me, seems important and is very well executed. Beyond this, the film gestures at being a portrait of grief, as is implied by the title. I was expecting an exploration of the pieces of a woman following an emotionally devastating experience. Fundamentally, the film is not this – though it certainly wants to be.

Though it is so easy to shovel praise all over that one sequence, even parts of it are indicative of the film’s wider – and overwhelming – issues. It is such a raw and real sequence but it is interrupted by points of utter artifice. Shia LaBeouf (this film was released prior to the very serious allegations of abuse, and, fortunately, the filmmaker came out in support of FKA Twigs in an official statement) plays the husband and father, it is an underwritten role and he doesn’t bring much to it. His dialogue in the scene is poor, dialogue is a recurring issue throughout the film, and pushes against the reality. Also, the use of music feels very forced and manipulative. What you are seeing is enough and giving it an emotional and overt soundtrack only dilutes it, and distances you from what is trying so hard to be real. The continuous mobile shot is so raw and emotive, the soundtrack just is not.

The film is full of these odd or counterintuitive decisions. It keeps adding pieces and every piece takes away from the potential brilliance at the centre. Rather than just focusing on female grief, the film threads in numerous underwritten plotlines that are unveiled in a fractured structure. The film ultimately charts the progression towards a court case, deciding whether the midwife caused the death of the baby, but then also doesn’t really focus on this. It gets pulled out in multiple directions, delving into side stories and half formed character arcs for the husband and the central character’s mother – with other characters thrown into the mix (including one extended scene where a character played by Ben Safdie just explains the White Stripes). This would all work if it felt thematic: if it was a fractured narrative that clearly focused on grieving characters and the fallout of tragedy, this sporadic approach would be a perfect fit. Instead, it just feels like the filmmakers wanted to pull off an important scene, did that and then did not have a wider film to fit around it. The dialogue is clunky and the assortment of metaphors are overt and a touch crude. For example, the husband is building bridges for a job when the relationship is together, when things fall apart, well… you can guess it already. This kind of touch is indicative of the film which includes so much perfunctory details and never decides what it wants to be.

However, not enough praise can be given to Vanessa Kirby’s performance at the heart of this film. Outside of that scene, she isn’t given much to do that is coherent or resonant. If you were to describe things that happened in the film, they might sound impactful or emotional – important even – but in execution they all fall flat. This is mostly down to the dialogue but also due to how the characters never feel real. This wants to be a portrait of grief but grief exudes from people, and the characters here don’t feel like people – making the film inert outside of, well – you know when. This all being said, Kirby more than holds her own. She more than elevates the hollow material and is a magnetic presence. She may not be written as a character and the narrative does not give her much, but the performance is stunning. We get so much emotion, complexity and nuance out of her yet the film never facilitates it. It is a performance that the film should be built around – and if it were it would be great. Sadly, she is too often side-lined and the choices made around her bring the whole thing down.

Pieces of a Woman is sadly just pieces of a movie, never feeling like a compelling whole and not at all satisfying. There is such potential here for an actual exploration of grief but the film pulls away from it at every point. Again, the single sequence is worth watching – though is not without flaws itself. Kirby’s performance is also worth experiencing – and it is a great indication of an amazing future. Alas, the film around these elements doesn’t understand their potential.

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