Pieces of a Woman is the English-language debut of Kata Wéber and Kornél Mundruczó, the Hungarian writer-director team behind White God, a film told from the perspective of a dog, and Jupiter’s Moon, an artsy take on the superhero origin story. Non-American filmmakers usually double down on the high-concept stuff when introducing themselves to American audiences—we’re globally infamous for not being fans of subtlety—but Wéber and Mundruczó take the opposite route with their latest. Pieces of a Woman is a quiet, challenging movie, difficult to watch for reasons both intentional and incidental. There are very few people I’d recommend it to.
That’s partly due to the subject matter. It’s a movie about a stillbirth during a home delivery, and its first half hour is dedicated to showing that stillbirth in agonizing detail. We hear the baby’s heartbeat faltering; we have full view of the baby’s head crowning; we watch her turn blue and die in her mother’s arms. It’s a scene unending in its tension and tragedy, presented as one, long take so that we, too, lack the respite denied to the parents. It’s the kind of scene that deserves a content warning in neon lights: if you or someone you love has experienced a miscarriage or a stillbirth, the opening of Pieces of a Woman could be legitimately traumatic.
Paradoxically, it’s also the portion of the movie that I have the easiest time recommending. Mundruczó and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb keep the camera uncomfortably close to the actors, catching every strained vein, sweating pore, and worried look. You can practically smell the vomit on the mother’s breath as she burps, her face just feet away from the lens. The closeness and rawness of the scene is a natural fit for a handheld camera—as if we were watching someone’s footage of their live birth—and it looks to be shot that way at first glance, but it becomes clear that it was shot on a gimbal, gliding smoothly through the scene without any of the shakiness and improvisation of a camera in the hand of a spectator. The fluidity with which the camera traverses the rooms, often hovering at or just below eye level, is less “footage”-like and more like we apparated into the house as spirits, invisible to the characters but with full access to their hardest, most private moment. It’s an effect that accentuates the horror and validates the performance of Vanessa Kirby, who plays the role of a grieving mother as if she’s mortified by the thought of grief showing on her face. Of course she doesn’t want anyone seeing any more of her—the opening scene stripped her bare, literally and metaphorically, and recovering from its horrible power is where Kirby and the film find meaning in restraint.
The film doesn’t have as much follow-through as Kirby where restraint is concerned, however. After the stillbirth, Pieces of a Woman seems like it’s going to chart the downward spiral of a marriage cast into hell, but that’s just one of the directions it goes. The conflicts are many: marital drama as husband and wife start to fall apart, family drama as one mother fights another over how to move forward, courtroom drama as charges of criminal negligence are brought against the midwife, and at one point that borders on over-dramatic self-parody, someone monologues about how similar the situation is to the Holocaust. Kirby’s performance, wading in numbness, is drowned out by the various dramas scrounging for attention. To say that the majority of Pieces of a Woman doesn’t live up to its opening scene is an understatement. It gets easier to watch, but nowhere near as worthwhile.
And yet the biggest reason I hesitate to recommend the movie has nothing to do with its diminishing returns. Shortly before its release, leading actor Shia LaBeouf was accused by multiple women of sexual battery, assault, and relentless emotional abuse. Pieces of a Woman features realistic scenes of sexual battery and abuse committed by Shia LeBeouf’s character. In the context of the accusations against LaBeouf, the movie’s potential as a vehicle of trauma takes a disturbing step into the real world. That’s not the fault of Wéber, or Mundruczó, or anyone involved with the movie’s production—but it is the responsibility of Netflix, which is distributing the movie for streaming in the aftermath of the accusations. The movie’s script may verge on inadvisable, but the lack of consideration put into its release is inexcusable.