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★★☆☆☆

Cinema’s unique facility to connect image, sound and narrative gives it a special power: there is not a medium that can portray the vast spectrum of emotional experience with the immediacy that films can. Perhaps this is why cinematic trauma has such visceral capacity to shock us.

For one scene, and one scene only, Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s latest effort taps that capacity profoundly. Taking that scene as a short film in its own right, it is masterful, aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally. Early in the film, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s camera tracks couple Martha and Sean (Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby), and midwife Eva (Molly Parker) in an excruciating single shot that takes us through Martha’s brief and tragic labour.

The sequence is uncompromising, frightening and unspeakably heartbreaking in its portrayal of something that can barely be contemplated. Its subject matter deserves a trigger warning – artistic value aside – anyone who has experienced a similar trauma should consider this before viewing. The scene’s brilliance lies in its near-wordless revealing of the nuances of Martha and Sean’s relationship, not to mention the silent panic of Eva as the birth starts to go wrong. The vulnerability of all three figures is laid bare, just as the fragility of life is in all senses of the word.

So what happened, then, for the film to transform so badly and so quickly into such tacky cynicism? The effectiveness of the labour scene is such that it takes a while to notice the dip, especially as Loeb’s cinematography remains as skilful as in the first act. Nevertheless, as recovering alcoholic Sean relapses, Martha slips into depression, and both are henpecked by Martha’s nagging mother (a criminally wasted Ellen Burstyn), sensitivity and empathy are replaced by nastiness and sensationalist cruelty.

In the midst of his despair, is it really necessary for Sean to nearly rape his wife, then two scenes later be seen to be having an affair? And for that affair to be with the lawyer prosecuting Eva for negligence, and for that lawyer to be an old family friend of Martha’s? These soap opera shenanigans are a far cry from Pieces of a Woman’s earlier humanity. It should be noted, too, that it’s hard for the recent revelations about LaBeouf not to colour our reading of his performance.

The film continues to mistake endless flat misery for emotional depth. And for something called Pieces of a Woman, it seems remarkably uninterested in any part of her interiority beyond gloomily looking into the middle distance. It’s also completely uninterested in Eva’s trial, only bringing her back at the end in service of an artificial and questionable redemption for Martha.

There are glimmers of a more complex, empathetic film here: the main cast do fine work with what they’ve got and the film’s apparent detachment from its characters mirrors the empty indifference that often characterises depression. But any potential for complexity is undone by the film’s tacky reveals, mawkish speechifying and its often spiteful approach to its own characters. Perhaps the film’s title refers to itself: pieces of a film. It’s a shame they weren’t arranged differently.

Christopher Machell