“The first 30 minutes of [‘Pieces of a Woman’] contain some of the most intense footage you will see this year — quite possibly the most bloodcurdling images of [birth], in all its hideous brutality, you have ever seen.” That quote paraphrases the Washington Post’s review of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan from 1998.
But those words apply equally to the first 30 minutes of “Pieces of a Woman,” a nearly unbroken shot: this introduction does not veer coyly from the painful birth of a child. The birth ends in more pain. The Post’s review of Saving Private Ryan applies to the rest of Pieces of a Woman, too: “How any film could live up to this searing introduction is almost impossible.” And, indeed, the progression from birth to trial is deliberate if less dramatic.
Writer and director Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber, the husband and wife team of Hungarians, set out to startle. Says Mundruczo: “I wanted to talk about a taboo…: women who lose their babies are relegated to isolation.” Thus, the film follows a year in the life of a woebegone mother. Martha (applause for Vanessa Kirby) is hounded by her domineering mother, her hair well-coifed compared to her daughter’s straggles; her nails manicured compared to her daughter’s chipped black paint. Unfortunately, Ellen Burstyn is burdened at the end with an unbelievable monologue. The vilified midwife (Molly Parker) remains constant through a torturous trial for which attorney/friend (Sarah Snook) bleats. Comedienne Iliza Shlesinger turns credibly serious to play Martha’s friend. Shia LaBeouf turns in a genuine performance as the husband, considered an afterthought.
For the grieving mother, Mundruczó and Wéber purposefully chose a descendant of Holocaust survivors, still dealing with death in her DNA. They trained their cameras close during the delivery, at ear lobe level looking up at eyelashes. Throughout this mystery of birth and death, they extended the metaphors of the bridge and the apple.
Pieces of a Woman cannot be reduced to misogynistic labels such as “a Lifetime movie” or merely “a sob story.” It requires a strong heart and close attention to its layers and nuances, for it presents a woman’s story as intense as any man’s story of war.