Pieces of a Woman is at its most interesting in the opening 30 minutes. The film begins by showing the entire labor process of Martha (Vanessa Kirby), who’s undergoing an at-home delivery of her first child with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Once the labor begins, the 30 minutes unfolds as a one-shot, taking us through the physical and emotional journey of delivering a baby. It’s captivating; Kirby’s performance in this opening sequence — and throughout the rest of the runtime — truly holds up the film. However, after this initial sequence, the film loses direction and struggles to find something to say about loss, grief, and the end of a relationship in the face of both those things.
Written by Kata Wéber and directed by Kornél Mundruczó, Pieces of a Woman is more of an acting vehicle for Kirby and Ellen Burstyn, who plays Martha’s mother, Elizabeth. Burstyn’s pivotal “lift your head” scene will surely be enough for supporting actress nominations, but the moment ultimately feels awkward considering the context of the scene.
LaBeouf’s presence, however, at the time of the film’s release, is preceded by sexual assault allegations.
The first 30 minutes also balances tension and connection during one of the most important moments that can happen between two people. That tension first comes when Martha’s original midwife can’t make it, so a replacement shows up, who Martha doesn’t know and doesn’t want. Left with no choice, Martha and her new midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), make it work. Despite some complications, the labor seems to go okay, until it doesn’t.
The time jump after the opening sequence focuses heavily on Martha as she tries to move on, but updates about the court case involving Eva penetrate her everyday awareness. It’s difficult to get a reading on Martha’s thoughts about Eva and the upcoming court case, however, a lot of time is taken up watching Martha and Sean’s relationship unfold. Considering the emotional catharsis of the film comes during the court case, the amount of screen time lent to Sean versus Eva makes the court case scene unearned, especially when it’s unclear why exactly Eva is even being taken to court. The benefit of that 30 minute “one take” opening means we see every move Eva makes. In her own story about loss and grief, Martha is lost in the shuffle of a great performance and unformed ideas.
Still, Pieces of a Woman is worth a watch at least for that opening 30 minutes. Just be prepared to not get a whole lot out of the rest of the film.