Pieces of a Woman: Incomplete, by David Bax
After a few short scenes establishing the main characters, their lives and their relationships, Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman announces itself with a long, complex and immersive single take (lasting almost 25 minutes) detailing an at-home childbirth. It’s possible you’ve already heard about this scene or the film’s other long takes, including one at a consequential family gathering at around the halfway point. That’s because impressive feats like these are the sorts of things people talk about when the rest of the movie doesn’t offer much of note.
Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is the young mother in question. Accompanying her in that early travail is the child’s father, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and the midwife, Eva (Molly Parker). There are complications with the birth and the rest of Pieces of a Woman takes place over the ensuing months, tracking the progress of a lawsuit against Eva.
Neither Martha nor Sean seem particularly invested in that case, though, despite seemingly being the wronged parties. Sean’s only interest in seeking advice from a lawyer (Sarah Snook) seems to be in having someone to talk to as he and Martha are increasingly less able to cope with one another’s presence. For a long while, Pieces of a Woman is chiefly a portrait of a crumbling marriage. Martha favors solitude and Sean becomes violently angry at being shut out. The lawsuit’s sole champion is Martha’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) and even she is only really pursuing it in an unsuccessful attempt to force her daughter to talk to her.
Pieces of a Woman takes place in Boston and, as the months after that fateful childbirth wear on, Mundruczó marks their passage with shots of the Charles River (I think; I’ve never been to Boston) as it fills with chunks of ice and then thaws again. He’s invoking, perhaps, the old adage that you can never step into the same river twice; Martha seems to be doing her best to achieve stasis–to deal with her life by not dealing with it–but time flows forward at the same pace despite her best efforts.
Martha may be trying to remove the substance of her life but the lawsuit raises the question of just what a life is worth. Pieces of a Woman, meanwhile, has more pressing questions. What is the point of justice? Of recrimination or amends? Is there anything that can be done that is past the point of forgiveness? And doesn’t forgiveness promote more healing than punishment?
These queries are the stuff of which good movies are made. But as it devolves into hoary speechifying and courtroom drama, Pieces of a Woman reveals that it’s more interested in the lightweight uplift of middlebrow prestige pictures than in any kind of interrogation of its audience’s world.