I love realist cinema. I was very impressed some weeks ago by Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and if I ever get around to immortalizing my own list of the “greatest” films ever made, I know I will no doubt mention the works of Jia Zhangke, like Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures. These works of art and others like it, though based in reality, are nonetheless exemplars of human imagination. They show us that real, true human lives can be compelling and even exciting without the need of magic, special effects, or a subject’s highly adventurous choice in occupation. The writer-director team of romantic partners Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber provide audiences with another entry in the genre by way of Pieces of a Woman, a film based on their own tragic experiences. The film has a lot going for it, but unfortunately it cannot separate what is real from what is, at times, kind of boring. Spoilers below:
Pieces of a Woman follows the story of Martha (Vanessa Kirby, in a tempered, on-point portrayal), and a few key members of her family (including Shia LaBeouf as her at-first dependable partner Sean, and Ellen Burstyn as her overbearing mother Elizabeth), among other characters threaded throughout. In a wonderfully-plotted opener, the movie begins on the delivery day of Martha and Sean’s daughter. Martha goes into labor later in the night, and when their preferred choice of midwife is unavailable for the home-birth, Eva (Molly Parker, in a performance that is as real as real can get) is sent in her stead. The high tensions of the delivery, Martha’s struggle and Eva’s failure to get a read on the baby’s heart, are accented and amplified by an ostensibly long take of the camera, and the scene is a high achievement for all involved: the actors, the writer-director team, the cinematographers and so on. In spite of all the anxieties, Martha and Sean’s baby girl is born alive. Martha holds her in her arms, and Sean snaps a photo.
Then, the baby turns blue. Happiness evaporates from Martha and Sean’s faces, and the latter rushes out to hail an already expected ambulance. The title card rolls.
Weeks pass. Martha is terribly reserved, deep into a depression over the loss of her child. Things aren’t much better for Sean, who, along with Elizabeth and other members of Martha’s family, are trying to get through to our titular woman as well as process the tragedy on their own terms. A criminal trial, meanwhile, is brought against Eva for her alleged negligence. The film plays out with eye-popping color, and a touching score by Howard Shore.
This all could be very compelling stuff for any character drama but, unfortunately like the lives of its characters, the narrative of Pieces falls apart after the pulse-pounding first act. All the remaining story takes shape over the course of months and, truncated though it is, moves at a snail’s pace. Kirby’s accurate portrayal of the inward nature of grief, which of course should be rightfully received as masterful to the careful eye, is, regardless, unexciting when juxtaposed against the expected (dare I say trite) interactions between her and her family. However, boring as it may be, one cannot decry the events depicted in Pieces as insultingly outlandish or fantastical. They are honest and true, providing the film with a modicum of emotional weight, and granting it entry into the hallowed halls of realist cinema. Pieces of a Woman is a fantastic effort, marked by several high-points (technical ones, as well as a powerful final act monologue by Kirby), but as entertainment and as a fully-functioning machine of art, there are clear cracks in its composition.