Roger Ebert once said movies are the “most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” “Pieces of a Woman,” directed by Kornél Mundruczó and written by his partner Kata Wéber, is an unfortunate example of how the medium of film equally lends itself to exploitation and manipulation. “Pieces of a Woman” is undeniably crafted beautifully. However, the film is unnecessarily cruel for the sake of generating empathy. As a result, the audience is left with what can only be described as emotional pornography. The film acts as though it has a deep compassion for its characters, but instead it chews them up and spits them out at the behest of narrative convenience.
“Pieces of a Woman” is the story of Martha and Sean, respectively played by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf, a young couple who has recently undergone a terrible tragedy. The experience of watching this film will likely leave you conflicted and drained as a result of its callousness. Nevertheless, the performances, especially Kirby’s, are revelatory and deserve every ounce of praise. The film heavily relies on close-ups and long takes, emphasizing the anxiety of the various vulnerable situations in which Martha finds herself. In particular, the long takes help build tension, especially when paired with a minimal score.
The film is also gorgeously shot. Each new chapter of the story begins with a stark view of the dreary Massachusetts Bay. Scenes which focus on Martha strolling through the city are crisp and utilize the captivating environment to great effect. The actual presentation of “Pieces of a Woman” is essentially flawless.
Where the film drastically falters is in its ability to tell a compelling story. As mentioned earlier, the film often resorts to forced, cheap and exploitative narrative devices. This isn’t to say that films about difficult topics should never be hard or uncomfortable to watch. There are countless examples of equally distressing films which treat their subject matter with poise and nuance. However, “Pieces of a Woman” is not one of them. There are several key moments in the script that possess real, human drama aided by exceptional performances but are immediately deflated due to baffling and unearned story choices. Although Kirby and LaBeouf do wonders with the little that they are given, the overall characterizations of Martha and Sean are weak. We are never given the opportunity to know them as people but only as victims. There are character decisions not fully fleshed out, only present to move the plot along or allow other characters to respond to their behavior.
Another blemish that makes the film distasteful is the recent revelation of LaBeouf’s abuse to his past girlfriends. Usually, this decision would not affect the viewing experience of a film, but the film’s content comes dangerously close to the actor’s real-life offenses As a result, the film leaves a deeply troubling taste in the mouth of the viewer. This isn’t even taking into account that the scenes closely resembling reality are extremely disturbing themselves.
There is a ponderous tone to the film, but it never truly pauses to allow us to sink into the moment. The film rushes at an unnecessarily frantic pace, jumping between months at a time, drastically depreciating its effectiveness.The audience is left guessing what kind of personal development has occurred with our protagonists during that lost time. For a film that relies heavily on internal turmoil, it awkwardly keeps the viewer at arm’s length.