Imagination isn’t only extravagant fantasy; it’s also a comprehensive realism, which offers a view of characters in their full spectrum of activities, and dramas in their full range of social implications. That sort of realistic imagination is what makes it possible, when filming fictional stories of the sort that seem torn from the headlines or derived from the lives of ordinary people, to combine the astonishment of journalistic investigation with intimate profundity and historical scope. The antithesis of such imagination is mere storytelling, a sort of middling informational mode of delivering drama. But there’s a special dimension of disappointment that comes from seeing a story told with a bombastic straining at importance, leaving out its wider connections in order to force a filmmaker’s emotions into it and wring viewers’ emotional reactions out of it. That’s the quality that afflicts “Pieces of a Woman” (streaming on Netflix), which is built on situations so moving and implications so fascinating that the movie would have been exemplary were it made only with modest attentiveness. Instead, its effortful grandiosity transforms it into something hollow and even, at times, risible.
The story is clear and simple: a woman named Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a corporate executive in Boston, is in labor; her child is being born at home, with the aid of a midwife named Eva (Molly Parker). The birth proves difficult, and the newborn dies. Grief exacerbates conflicts between Martha and her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction foreman. Meanwhile, as their relationship deteriorates, Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), a wealthy woman, insists that Martha press charges against the midwife and also consider a civil suit against her; because Martha is reluctant to do so, Elizabeth recruits a cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a prosecutor, to help with both cases, and presses Sean to aid with the cases behind Martha’s back. What results (I’m avoiding some spoilers) is a courtroom drama in which legal issues ultimately give way to matters of conscience.
From the start, the movie suggests a heavy-handed approach to its information dosing, as Sean strides through the site of a bridge under construction, barking orders while also managing to bark information about his unborn daughter. Martha impatiently attends a baby shower-cum-maternity-leave party in her gleaming glass corporate office, and carries a box of personal items out and into the elevator. Elizabeth buys the couple a used S.U.V. from a car dealer named Chris (Benny Safdie), who is the partner of Martha’s sister, Anita (Iliza Shlesinger), stoking, in the process, Sean’s resentment of Elizabeth for using her wealth to belittle him in Martha’s eyes. All of this happens on one day, September 17th (the dates appear onscreen for each of the movie’s episodes), as if to lend the fiction an air of reportorial authenticity. When Martha and Sean get home, she soon goes into labor, Eva arrives, and Martha gives birth—in a single shot that runs more than twenty minutes.
That maneuver is a mere stunt that demands virtuosity on the part of the actors but has no emotional or dramatic effect, because the images themselves are created with an all too smoothly roaming camera that shifts from character to character as if in isolated shots. The scene is both tense and banal—until it shifts drastically in its last moments, with the horror of things going wrong and the apparently unexceptional birth quickly turning tragic. Yet, in the light of the subsequent drama, the decision by the director, Kornél Mundruczó, to film the birth and its aftermath in a single take suggests an admirably peculiar yet ultimately pointless symbolic function: as evidence. After the climactic courtroom scenes near the end of the film, in which the events of the birth come under close public scrutiny, a Netflix viewer has an advantage that someone seeing the film in a theatre doesn’t—going back to that birth scene, near the beginning of the film, and rewatching it to compare the testimony with the events. The absence of editing in the childbirth scene is a way to indicate that the event has been presented in its entirety; editing would evoke the suspicion that someone—which is to say, the filmmaker—had edited not merely the images but the event, had left out details that would be relevant to consideration at trial. In effect, Mundruczó treats his own fictional material like a newsreel, as if the camera weren’t his dramatically directed one, and as if the events weren’t his own staged ones but, rather, an unvarnished truth that the rest of the movie would be addressing. (If he had the directorial courage of that conviction, he’d have reprised that scene in its entirety at the end of the film, to give all viewers, in theatres as well as online, the same experience of recourse to the “facts.”)
“Pieces of a Woman” is a courtroom drama in which Mundruczó and the screenwriter, Kata Wéber (who are also a couple), shy away from what’s most interesting about the story, namely, its intersection of legal and medical implications in the private lives of its central characters. Are there restrictions or conflicts of interest when a prosecutor is working on a case in which a relative is a victim? The movie doesn’t suggest as much. (Nobody questions it for a second—not Suzanne, and not even her unseen higher-ups. Do they even know?) For the case to go ahead, Martha, and likely Sean, too, would go through extended conferences with officials—with the prosecutor, with investigators, maybe with expert witnesses—but none of these legal preliminaries are in the film. (They’re all wrapped up and tossed off in a line that Suzanne drops to Sean at a most inopportune moment.) In other words, the story itself invests a vast amount of dramatic time and energy on the recollection and the analysis of facts involved in the birth—and that time and energy bear enormous dramatic weight of conscience and responsibility that would inevitably be a subject of discussion elsewhere, between Martha and Sean, perhaps between Martha and a friend (no friend ever appears), even between Martha and her journal or internal monologue (why rule that out?). Yet none of that time, none of those extensive discussions or contemplations, are included in the film; the court case drops in, out of the dramatic blue.
Instead, Mundruczó and Wéber create scenes that exist for the sole purpose of stoking emotion on their own—of declaring and displaying characters’ responses but not underpinning those responses with concrete elements of their lives. As a result, these scenes come off as utter fabrications, and the performances, by the cast of notable actors, come off as the pinning to the screen of cinemojis, expressing a single emotion that’s written in the script, which the director intends for the actors to convey, and the viewer is intended to feel. The movie anchors these dictated emotions in a conspicuously willful array of details that are signified as banal—recurring references to apples, the overdetermined use of cigarettes, the presence of a ski cap. This trope of bathos, of contrasting the sublime with the trivial, is no worse than any other. But, here, far from evoking irony or paradox, it undercuts the sublimity of the intended emotions by pointing, above all, to the filmmakers’ will to express them.
For instance, the characters’ ethnicity comes up intermittently: Martha is Jewish; Sean is at least part Hungarian. Both of these identities get a scene. With Sean, it involves a fierce but absurdly truncated argument over the spelling of the name on the baby’s tombstone. With Martha, it involves a crucial moment of intensity in the drama, at a family gathering, when Elizabeth, trying to persuade her of the emotional urgency of pursuing Eva in court, delivers an extended and fervent monologue about her own birth and infancy, in hiding from the Nazis during the Second World War, as narrated to her by her mother (Martha’s grandmother). It’s a moving and horrifying story—yet, while Elizabeth is telling it, she might as well have broken the fourth wall and addressed the story to the audience, with an explanation: “Martha has heard this one a hundred times, whenever she didn’t want to eat her vegetables, but it’s probably new to you, so let me tell it to you instead.” In lieu of a revelation, the scene comes off as a data dump.
I learned only belatedly, long after first seeing “Pieces of a Woman,” that it was based in part on the experience of Wéber and Mundruczó, who lost a child. They added to their experience a news story from Hungary, from 2010, of a midwife who faced criminal charges relating to the deaths of babies she’d delivered. Unfortunately, the hybrid of the filmmakers’ drama vitiates both parts of it; the agony of their personal experience is submerged in an elaborate legal story that, naturally, engages them less than the story of grief and trauma. I suspect that they could have made a much better movie from one story or the other—dramatizing their experience of loss, or investigating a case of a couple’s most intimate agonies within the judicial system. Either of the stories would have been far more authentic, substantial, and moving than the one they filmed, which relies on their craft, their technique, their professionalism, and spoils both.
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