Producers: Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder and Kevin Turen Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenplay: Kata Wéber Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Frank Schorpion and Jimmie Fails Distributor: Netflix
There’s so much that’s excellent in this English-language debut from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (“White Dog”) that the missteps are all the more regrettable.
The plot, though emotionally complex, is actually quite a simple one in narrative terms. A Boston couple—prim businesswoman Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and rugged construction worker Sean (Shia LaBeouf)—are expecting their first child, and have decided on a home birth. When the night arrives, however, the midwife with whom they’ve been working is attending to another client, and sends a replacement—Eva (Molly Parker). Things go awry, and the infant survives only briefly; paramedics who have been summoned cannot save her.
The tragedy places strains on the relationship between the devastated Martha and Sean, who agrees with his mother-in-law Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) that they should proceed with a civil suit against Eva despite the fact that the two have never gotten along. Martha’s sister Anita (Ilisa Shlesinger) and her boyfriend Chris (Benny Safdie) are sucked into the unhealthy dynamic. Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a lawyer, is hired. Things culminate—except for a misguided postscript—at Eva’s trial, which has become the focus of public anger over her supposed incompetence.
By far the most compelling part of the film comes at the start with the extraordinarily powerful birthing sequence, a brilliantly choreographed scene shot with a tensely moving camera by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, which is so gut-wrenching that makes everything that follows, however fraught, feel anticlimactic.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of the film lacks dramatic incident. A bitter confrontation between Martha and her mother, for example, gives Elizabeth an impassioned diatribe about why her own past impels her to be so adamant now that Burstyn delivers with all the thrust one expects of her. And throughout Kirby, not only in her exchanges with Burstyn and LaBeouf but in quieter moments as well, brings nuance and resonance to her character.
But elsewhere the makers’ skill falters. A subplot about Sean’s involvement with Suzanne comes off as not just implausible but crass. The punctuation of episodes with shots of the bridge Sean and his co-workers are building, showing the completion of the structure over the course of the year covered by the film, seems like a hollow symbol of “building bridges” between warring people, expressed in the too-easy culmination of Eva’s trial. And what to make of that weird coda, which inhabits an emotional world totally at odds with what’s preceded?
One must admire the work of Mundruczó and Loeb, as well as editor David Jacobs, who adds to the hazy, sometime hallucinogenic ambience; and one has to feel for production designer Sylvain Lemaitre, who must convince us that locations in Montreal and Norway are actually in Boston. Howard Shore’s elegiac score is also notable, as are the performances by the supporting cast, especially Burstyn and Parker. (Only LaBeouf is somewhat stymied by a character whose background is never sufficiently explored—one wonders how Sean and Martha ever got together in the first place.)
In the end, though, “Pieces of a Woman” seems an apt title for a film that has moments of searing power, but never quite comes together into a persuasive whole.