Pieces of a Woman

Pieces of a Woman ★★★½

Whenever I watch a movie released on Netflix, I can’t help but have a bias against it despite some arguably strong films that Netflix has put out over the past few years. It’s the other way around when I make a trip to the movie theater to see a newly released movie, almost as if taking the time to go there instinctively makes me want to like the film more because if I don’t, what was the time I spent squeezing together with strangers on the subway for? However, lying in bed and watching a movie, that is to say a movie released on Netflix, automatically comes with some probably unjustified skepticism on my part, or at least not an inherently positive predisposition towards it.

A staggering portrait of grief, Pieces of a Woman follows the story of a woman dealing with and facing her grief following the devastating birth of her daughter. Over the course of its well-paced runtime, this film strives to thoughtfully examine the profound heartache and isolating sadness our main character, Martha, experiences in the aftermath of her birth, from her despair in the beginning to the more hopeful tones in the end.

The movie opens with a 30-minute sequence as intense and human as they come, depicting a home birth with almost all of it shot in a single take. As a result, we are immediately thrown into an unfamiliar setting, leaving us with almost no time to adjust, much less to breathe—much like the characters themselves. The cinematography in the opening sequence flawlessly serves the story; the claustrophobia and panic experienced by the characters is mirrored in closeups, restlessly melded together by a camera slowly panning back and forth between each of their reactions; the soft, but somewhat dim lighting along with an overall monochromatic setting reflect their difficulty to see what lies beyond, subsequently submerging the audience in the story with the characters and their struggles. The one-take nature of it all masterfully blends the emotional impact of each aspect and creates an immersing, in-the-moment opening for an emotional heavy movie, already leaving us shocked and perhaps devastated, but also urging to see how the characters handle the unjust cards they’ve been dealt.

As the film comes back after the opening sequence, there is an immediate contrast to the tense and restless beginning; the camera now feels static, the lighting bright, and in the midst of it all, we see Martha drowning in a sea of grief—her expression stoic, but with visible emotion underneath. Vanessa Kirby’s performance took some time to grow on me, but once it did, her acting, for me, turned into a stirring portrayal of a woman going through inexplicable grief. Kirby’s expressions and gazes are enough to convey emotion otherwise too powerful and devastating to communicate, and the film gives her character the space to express these emotions (for the most part), reminding us that every stranger we see on the bus might be going through a shattering experience we have no idea of. 

However, despite the space Pieces of a Woman gives the character, the same amount of space isn’t given to the audience, mainly because of its—in my view—unfitting soundtrack (even though it’s by the Howard Shore). The score to this film neither allows the audience to completely experience their own emotions during pivotal moments, nor does it fully allow the scenes on screen to be essential for evoking said emotions. Instead, more often than not, the music suddenly swells during moments whose impacts lie in their silence, subsequently doing the exact opposite of what the scene itself is trying to achieve. I believe that a film that has the time to let a door fall back into place after a character has already walked through should also have the time to fully let emotions sink in—without forcing them with a literally unharmonious soundtrack. As a result, this movie is marked by the unbalanced contrast of silent moments that work on their own and an almost aggressive dictating of feelings with a score that doesn’t match the somber atmosphere.

The inorganic opposition of the soundtrack and the film is symbolic of a problem Pieces of a Woman can’t get rid of. This movie has so much potential to be relentlessly thought-provoking and powerful—however, every strong element, it seems, has a weaker counterpart. While Vanessa Kirby delivers a stellar performance, Shia LaBeouf’s acting occasionally feels forced and lacks the nuance to be truly moving, especially during poignant scenes that are less reliant on dialogue and therefore more dependent on the actors’ performances. Although the opening act is a striking tour de force, the rest of the film, especially the third act, sometimes fails to interweave compelling moments of silence with stirring dialogues, causing the movie to lose a substantial amount of its momentum and leading it to fall into a rhythm of predictability. As a result, the emotional impression never once reaches the initial depth of the opening act, and now, as I’m writing this the day after watching the film, it seems that the overall impact of this film doesn’t match the expected depth of its painful premise. Nick puts it perfectly, the movie itself is made of individual pieces each outstanding on their own, but together, it’s as if they lack the glue to hold them together and to make the film as powerful as it could’ve been. 

Pieces of a Woman neither escapes my Netflix bias, nor does it manage to make me reconsider my somewhat unreasonable prejudice. But still—it’s a harrowing portrayal of grief experienced through a woman grappling with a loss too difficult to imagine, and for the most part, this film succeeds at doing so. Grief, it seems to say, isn’t a tangible result of an unjust twist of fate (as tangible as emotions can be), instead, it’s an engulfing feeling reflected in almost everything that is tangible: storefronts and cars become heartbreaking reminders, other people’s smiles become pain, silence becomes air filled with unspoken sorrow. In the end—in spite of its shortfalls—Pieces of a Woman is a firm depiction of human emotion.

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