It’s kind of a mystery how British actress Vanessa Kirby got an Oscar nomination for Pieces of a Woman, but the title might tell us all we need to know. Kirby’s role as Martha is a concatenation of cultural prejudices and advantages: She’s a Boston Brahmin debutante who marries down to blue-collar construction worker Sean (Shia LaBeouf). She’s pregnant but still tied to the influence of her domineering, bigoted mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and his screenwriting partner Kata Wéber assemble these sociological puzzle pieces out of the contradictions of #MeToo-era sympathies.
Mundruczó’s camera dotes on Kirby (best known for her role on Netflix’s The Crown as rascal brunette Princess Margaret, but she’s a haughty blonde here). Kirby’s performance consists of mood scenes and attitude posturing, since Weber’s clichéd dialogue is subordinate to the director’s attempt at visual realism. But Kirby isn’t a commanding presence; she has that British theater-actor anonymity that never convincingly translates into American temperament or idioms. She’s miming a type — from an emotional distance and in a very actressy manner.
After Mundruczó introduces the mismatched couple, he circles the two of them in a 24-minute, unedited sequence of Martha’s pre-delivery contractions. His overlong, undisciplined style unapologetically follows the overrated, now forgotten Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, by Cristian Mungiu from the previous decade — a pre-#MeToo art-movie rationalization for abortion as social mandate. In Pieces of a Woman, Martha and Sean’s interaction with a doula, who is standing in for their regular midwife, moves like a theatrical set piece. It is meant to be a tour de force but is monotonous. Kirby’s physical exaggerations and shrieks can only impress young feminists who are unfamiliar with movie birth stunts. (Julie Andrews followed her squeaky-clean image in The Sound of Music with a memorable one-take labor scene in the 1966 film Hawaii.)
Mundruczó’s tick-tocking pace is not suspenseful; it signals that the worst is going to happen. It does, which throws Martha and her upper-crust family into a court case seeking damages and revenge while the debutante’s marriage and family relations fall apart (thus, another rationalization of abortion culture).
Pieces of a Woman is a pre-digested coming-to-consciousness tale in which a pampered young adult frees herself from the gendered definitions imposed upon her by others. The film’s puzzle-pieces concept may be Mundruczó and Wéber’s nod to Jerry Schatzberg’s Faye Dunaway vehicle Puzzle of a Downfall Child, from 1970 (a director’s love letter as well as a psychological mystery), but visual eroticism is the last thing Mundruczó and Wéber care to import to American independent cinema. They present Kirby’s Martha, whose petulance recalls the stereotypical Jewish American Princess descended from her mother’s own East European ghetto past, as a standard-bearer.
Sure enough, Kirby gets the Oscar-bait “my body” speech (this year’s equivalent to Laura Dern’s Oscar-winning blasphemous tirade in Marriage Story). But it’s Ellen Burstyn who steals the movie from Kirby with a display of her own Actors Studio playbook. Hateful Elizabeth evokes Old World terrors and makes a literal “speak your truth” confession. Sorry, Ellen. No Oscar nomination; it’s just Oprah-talk.
At over two hours, Pieces of a Woman is often shoddily amateurish, like so many Netflix productions. The worst improvisational scene in recent cinema is a fractious family conclave in which Martha’s preppie brother-in-law Chris (Benny Safdie) and Shia LeBeouf’s gruff-bearded construction worker share an unlikely discussion about The White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army” (not Journey, not even Kanye West, but a hipster band!). This utter phoniness — disconnected from the minutiae of language and facts of cultural taste and experience — is an example of how bourgeois Hollywood simultaneously congratulates and defeats itself.