Netflix’s latest release, Pieces Of A Woman, is proof that arthouse filmmakers still haven’t tired of exploring grief. It’d be one thing if they had something interesting or entertaining to say about grief (and some do, Hesher and Babyteeth come to mind) but so often it seems filmmakers just want an excuse to stage those oh-so-cinematic moments, like a tear falling gently onto a photograph, or Shia Labeouf screaming “WHYYYYY!” at a frozen harbor. Some people just want to see the world wallow.
Pieces of a Woman, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) and writer Katá Weber (executive produced by Martin Scorsese, whatever that means) stars Vanessa Kirby and Shia Labeouf as a Boston married couple who lose their baby during a home childbirth. They then spend the rest of the film doing grief-y stuff, like lashing out at family members, descending into self-destructive vice, and screaming at harbors. WHY, HARBOR, WHY???
The home birth itself takes a full 30 minutes of screen time, with Vanessa Kirby bellowing to the heavens at every contraction and acting inexplicably doped up in between. It’s a home birth with no drugs administered, so I’m not sure why she seems drunk. It’s one of a handful of odd artistic choices during the sequence, like the frequent focus on Kirby’s very fake-looking stomach, an effect it seems like they could’ve either spent more time constructing or just not shot in so many close-ups. It’s also a little unclear what drew this pair together, Kirby playing the bourgie avocado toast yuppie, LaBeouf the squirrely, blue-collar knucklehead with an unexplained accent.
Playing Kirby’s manic, inexplicably cholo-sounding husband, Sean, LaBeouf seems to have retained a bit of the accent from his previous role, as Creeper in David Ayer’s execrable The Tax Collector (which LaBeouf was actually pretty good in). The out-of-step accent is extra noticeable on account of Kirby’s character being named “Martha.” LaBeouf’s soft, SoCal R pronunciation comes through every time he says her name, which is a lot. MORtha. MORtha? MORtha! MORtha?! Sidenote: how many women under 50 do you know named Martha?
The baby dies, leaving many to wonder whether it was all the fault of their midwife, played by Molly Parker. Emphatic in this belief is Martha’s rich mom, played by Ellen Burstyn, a controlling old money sort who naturally hates Shia LaBeouf and his overemphasized cholo Rs. Iliza Shlesinger as Martha’s sister, Bennie Safdie from Uncut Gems as her brother-in-law, and Succession‘s Sarah Snook as her cousin/lawyer round out a pretty nice ensemble cast. (Netflix must call Iliza Shlesinger every time they have a spare character from Boston.)
From there, the movie goes on to combine excruciating symbolism with the usual tropes of arthouse grief. Sean and Martha engage in some light infidelity (including a hilarious extended closeup of Shia LaBeouf’s pubic patch, the Muff LaBeouf, as I call it), and Martha proceeds to: 1. smash their framed ultrasound pictures 2. pop an exercise ball with the lit end of her cigarette (what’s the opposite of “pregnant” with symbolism?) 3. and take up apple seed cultivation as a hobby (get it, man? she’s creating life!). If I never saw another oh-so-symbolic art movie moment involving an apple I could die a happy man.
At one point, Ellen Burstyn gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about her past as a Holocaust baby, which slowly turns into a parable about how the grieving Martha should act. The speech is fitfully compelling, as it always is watching Burstyn chew scenery, but so overly dramatic and out of left field that it’s a little reminiscent of Mike Myers’ parody Oscar monologue in Wayne’s World. And another thing! I! Never! Learned! To Read!
LaBeouf’s character, meanwhile, a recovering alcoholic construction worker, is manic, borderline abusive, and seemingly always on the verge of becoming unhinged. He’s arguably the most compelling element of the film, even as he seems like might’ve wandered in from a different movie. He teeters on the cusp of real violence and comes frighteningly close, but it feels almost like he spooked the filmmakers in the process. Eventually, they sort of just shunt his character aside and carry on with the rest of the movie.
There’s a courtroom drama sequence involving the midwife that briefly threatens to turn Pieces of A Woman interesting, but even that soon dissolves into corny grief clichés and ends before it can really get going. The film ultimately concludes with arguably the most groan-worthy apple visual. Perhaps as the filmmakers’ way of saying, “So, guys? How do you like them apples?”
Personally, I think if we’re going to spend 30 minutes watching a woman give birth to a dead baby, we deserve more justification than a few good Ellen Burstyn scenes and a bushel of apple metaphors. Come for the grieving, stay for Shia LaBeouf’s pubes.