Pieces of a Woman is the kind of film that gets watched because it received a solitary acting Oscar nomination, and even before it received that nomination, it was discussed for literally only two things, one of which is the performance that received that nomination. Which, for the record, belongs to Vanessa Kirby, one of the most celebrated British stage actresses of her generation, who's still in the "trying to make her a thing" stage of her film career. The Oscar nomination, I suppose, counts as "made it as a thing", but I can also sort of imagine her being one of those performers who's so much more comfortable onstage than onscreen that she never really commits to a movie career, just popping by every now and then to say hi. And this is less because I know the first thing about Kirby or her career hopes, than because Pieces of a Woman is very much the kind of movie that wanted to stay a stage play (the source material has not to my knowledge been staged outside of its native Hungary; at any rate, I can find no indication that it was translated into English), and has been produced to accentuate that impression.

Not least because of how aggressively the whole thing feels like an acting workshop where the exercises were filmed and, hey, since we filmed them, might as well cut them into a feature. Which gets me back to where I wanted to go with that opening paragraph, which is: this is the kind of film that very conspicuously gets praised for its acting in a way that always makes me immediately assume that there's nothing other than the acting here, and, well, there's really not. The acting is, to be clear, very good, and not only from Kirby. I might not even say that she gives my favorite performance in the movie: that honor probably goes to Molly Parker who is in so much less of the film, and is tasked almost entirely with unspoken reactions, and is heartbreaking and lost and desperately human in doing so. But out of the seven actors with substantial roles, the only one who I'd say is fumbling anything is Ellen Burstyn, who is of course a legend of the first order just on the basis of her work in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in the 1970s, and I don't want to disparage her. Let us say only that I think most of the cast is trained to do a certain kind of free-form riffing in the moment to assemble their characters as a collection of real-time reactions and thought processes, and Burstyn is maybe less so. There is, at any rate, a scene where her character is discussing what to do in the kitchen to prepare for a party where a terrible emotional blow-up is all set to happen, and I just felt profoundly uncomfortable watching the great actor try to find her way around the aggressively quotidian naturalism of that moment, clearly not understanding this particular form of naturalism. Or, possibly, kitchens.

Pieces of a Woman, before I get too much deeper into the weeds, is a study of unimaginable grief. In mid-September, Martha (Kirby) goes into labor; she has already planned to have the baby naturally at home, but she and her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are thrown off their game a bit when their chosen midwife is busy with another delivery, and so they have to welcome a stranger, Eva (Parker) into their home. This gets us to the big showpiece of the entire feature, a 24-minute single take that covers basically the entire delivery from the moment that Martha starts to realise what's going on, right up until Eva realises with thin-lipped horror that the baby is turning blue, and dies after only minutes of life. The remainder of the film strides forward about one month to six weeks at a time, watching one scene in Martha's life as she just tries to deal: with a husband whose own grieving process is not really compatible with her own, to their mutual misery; with a mother (Burstyn) who seems hellbent on assigning blame and litigating the pain away; with friends and family who are just so fucking impossible to be around even when there's no reason for that to be the case. The playwright Wéber Kata, who also wrote the screenplay, based this on a real event in her own life, when a miscarriage sent to her to live for several months in meditative isolation away from her family and her film director husband Mundruczó Kornél, who has taken that role on for this production. So it's coming from an extremely real, sincere place, and I will say this much: watching Pieces of a Woman, it's hard not to feel the shocking pain of it. Kirby's performance of being hollowed-out by trauma leaves absolutely nowhere to go for escape from the bleakness of her character's pain.

And... that's what we get. Not to diminish Wéber and Mundruczó's loss, but Pieces of a Woman doesn't really do anything with this, other than keep insisting "how horrible the pain", and letting us watch it play out in scenes that, every single one of them, feel like an exercise for the actors involved to play through a series of ideas about loss, grief, and emotional suffering. They do all of this very well, but the whole thing is so constructed, so overt about how it's shuffling people around, it left me feeling locked out the entire running time. That 24-minute long take is a great example. The official explanation is that Mundruczó wanted to give the actors a chance to work out this complicated, stressful experience in the character's lives in the moment, without marks to hit and with only a rough idea of choreography and blocking (the one specific thing I know is that they could only go in and out of the bathroom once, since that was the point where there was likeliest to be a fuckup). It's meant to evoke the unpredictable feeling of intensely emotional live theater, which of course film is not capable of doing; and even if film was, it has to be done well. And this has problems. There were, apparently, six takes recorded, and we're seeing the fourth; it was not the most technically perfect, but the director liked what the actors were giving him the best.

Not to diminish the actors, but the technical imperfections sure as hell show up. Far too much of that 24-minute run consists of the camera shifting about, looking for a place to settle down: there are multiple points where we get a conversation where e.g. Kirby's knees are talking to the half of Parker's face that made it into frame. It is, emphatically, not visual storytelling, and while the long take might tell us something about the hideous sense of live-wire panic, the "this, then this, then this" feeling of a labor going awry, simply by trapping us in one place, it also tells us "this was a film where I wanted every single review to mention that there was a 24-minute long take". Maybe it gave something to the actors to be able to play the scene this way, but if it did, a lot of it is getting lost, and I cannot help but feel that judicious, thoughtful cutting between those six takes, maybe to give us a chance to focus on specific characters at specific moments, might have been more artistically satisfying than the baggy footage we've been given.

But that's kind of the entire vibe of Pieces of a Woman: sort of shapeless, meandering material that feels like it might have given a real challenge to the actors, and it feels like they rose to that challenge, but I'm never watching Martha's true and challenging pain. I'm watching Kirby skillfully enact it. And other people, as well, though the film has a persistent problem with trying to deepen the supporting cast (especially Sean: there's a subplot about the explicitly class-based conflict between him and his mother-in-law that the film is openly petrified of engaging with in anything but the most superficial possible way. It's especially a problem for a film that already feels straitjacketed by its bourgeois milieu and sets). To be sure, the amount of pacing and screaming that go on here give me every reason to assume this could easily be devastating stuff onstage. But Pieces of a Woman is a movie, and it's just not a very interesting one.