I have noticed a tendency in my reviews to write more generously about films I give two stars than those I give two-and-a-half, and the reason is simple: there is more to admire in works that aspire beyond what they achieve than there is in those that meet already tepid goals. Pieces of a Woman, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and released on Netflix this week, falls in that unfortunate but still respectable category. It and its fellow two-starred movies have pros that deserve our attention and cons that, at least in my eyes, end up outweighing them. There are interesting elements, moments, or ideas on offer for viewers, but some flaw in the foundation keeps them from cohering enough to succeed outright— and when that flaw is the writing, as it is in this case, you’ll usually find me on the negative end of the critical spectrum.
Based on the stage play that pulled from the personal experience of Hungarian writer Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó, Pieces of a Woman follows a Boston couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and their family in the aftermath of a tragic homebirth. As the grief causes Sean’s struggles with addiction to resurface, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) pushes for them to seek justice in court, roping in her niece Suzanne (Sarah Snook) to handle the trial. Caught between them, Martha must seek out the room to navigate her own grieving process, a desire for space that puts her personal relationships at risk of rupture.
Mundruczó gets his film off to a very strong start, dedicating twenty early minutes to a single-take birth scene that is both engaging and impactful, and its excellence provides a key for understanding the drop-off that follows. By highlighting the acting and cinematography, the scene plays to the film’s strengths, and the choice to leave it unbroken is a strong one. But at this point in the movie, the characters are only lightly developed, allowing the viewer to read depth into the actors’ performances— which a shift to relying on dialogue unfortunately dispels. While the cast works admirably to pull emotional truths from their characters, they are fairly thin on paper, each reduced to a ‘schtick’ that makes them feel increasingly contrived. The script’s reliance on dramatic exchanges that give voice to subtextual conflict repeatedly leaves the actors out to dry, and in lesser hands, this would be dismissed as Oscar bait.
But the noble intent at the heart of Pieces of a Woman does come across; the writing is just not as good as it wants to be. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (as well as much of his other work) offers a useful point of comparison. His writing strives for a balance between realistic speech and artful design, so that his characters feel human without hiding the intent with which they are arranged— in other words, though we know the scenarios around them to be fiction, they seem to live through them. Pieces of a Woman aspires to present this kind of living, but despite a game cast, achieves it only inconsistently.