Into every awards season must fall a heavy movie whose challenging subject matter claims prestige that the art itself just doesn’t match. 30 Rock’s famous plot arc following Tracy Jordan’s Oscars-grab “Hard to Watch (Based on the novel ‘Stone Cold Bummer’ by Manipulate)” is the perfect encapsulation of this: pick a subject that is an absolute downer, and turn up the histrionics so it looks like Acting.
2020’s contender for the title is Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. While it’s not the most over-the-top example of this annual occurrence, the story is among the hardest to engage with: a woman, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) struggles to navigate her profound grief after the loss of her baby daughter during a tragic home birth. While the performances throughout are admirable – particularly Kirby’s – Mundruczó’s direction and Kata Wéber’s screenplay mistake tragedy and melodrama for profundity.
The film’s first half hour is a genuinely impressive feat. In a series of short scenes, Martha and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) prepare for the arrival of their little girl. They get a minivan courtesy of Martha’s chilly, somewhat controlling mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). Martha goes on maternity leave. Sean gives Martha a set of framed photos of their daughter’s sonogram.
Roughly 10 minutes in, Mundruczó gives us a 20 minute-plus single take of Martha’s labor, which feels harrowingly realistic. Her chosen midwife is unavailable, so a substitute, Eva (Molly Parker), comes to help. Martha is miserable, but seems to be progressing fine, until the baby’s heart rate suddenly drops. She gives birth to a seemingly healthy baby girl, but her joy quickly turns to tragedy when the baby dies moments later. The rest of the film follows the fallout of that event, with Eva facing a criminal trial for the baby’s death, and Martha facing pressure from Sean and Elizabeth to tack on a civil suit as well, with Martha’s lawyer cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) taking the case.
The 30-minute opening feels like an intense but well-executed short film. Mundruczó’s one-r, while certainly impressive, mostly serves to keep viewers present in the scene. The trick works, and the performances sell those emotions. It’s equally stunning, however, how quickly that strong first impression falls apart.
Mundruczó marks time throughout the film with images of an unfinished bridge, a leaden visual metaphor for the way Martha’s grief has separated her from her family. Supporting characters deliver oddly constructed lines or break into monologues that come out of nowhere, including a speech from Burstyn that feels like an Oscars clip lifted from a totally different film. Subplots involving Snook’s Suzanne and Martha’s coworker Max (Jimmie Fails) similarly seem to drop out of the grim Boston sky, but imply dramatic heft that simply isn’t there.
Kirby barely gets enough screen time as Martha, considering she’s supposed to be the film’s emotional lodestone. However, she does her best to make that journey feel honest, and the attempt is admirable. In fact, most of the film’s performers maintain a strong sense of naturalism, when the script isn’t asking them to break into hysterics. The issue is that the material they’re working with simply isn’t very good. It’s frustratingly easy to see an effective movie in Pieces of a Woman. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by a prestige-y pretension that aims for greatness, yet uses all the wrong metrics of how successful art actually works. It’s hard to watch, all right, but not for the right reasons.
“Pieces of a Woman” is now streaming on Netflix.