Pieces of a Woman, 2020.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Iliza Shlesinger, Jimmie Fails, Tyrone Benskin, and Frank Schorpion.
A grieving woman embarks on an emotional journey after the loss of her baby.
There are pieces of a great movie within Pieces of a Woman (Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó lends a strongly empathetic and gentle touch to regular screenwriting collaborator Kata Wéber’s equally profound script that practically drips with grief and complex characters each entrenched in their own personal pain), a searing film centered on stillborn loss and the subsequent sorrow. The film is going to prove to be a tearjerker to almost anyone that watches it (the only exception being heartless people), but everything about this character study of tragedy and pain aligns with my personal taste so closely that it’s a disappointment I’m not coming away from it hailing it as the must-see artistic experience of the year and an underdog Oscar contender. Somewhere along the way, the pieces become too fragmented and the narrative too unfocused, which is admittedly a challenging balancing act to weigh when intentionally breaking months of someone’s year into critical moments.
What’s not broken up or so much as even cut away from his Martha’s rough and rocky birth-giving sequence. Arriving not even five minutes after establishing broad details about the various characters including her significant other Sean (Shia LaBeouf, giving a mesmerizing turn as a chill and down-to-earth partner that transcends acting) and the somewhat dicey relationship they share with Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, who is due for her “it’s your turn now” Oscar win not just because it would play a small part in making up for one of the greatest snubs in Academy history by losing out Best Supporting Actress for Requiem for a Dream, but also because her work here is phenomenal and comes with a powerful and passionate monologue that instantaneously re-contextualizes everything there is to think about her character) which proves to be a planted seed for extended drama beyond the premise of loss.
Martha’s water breaks at an unlucky time as her preferred midwife is busy dealing with another delivery. Trusted by that same midwife, Molly Parker’s Eva is the midwife sent out, and they, alongside Sean, assist Martha through the heavy pushing and unfathomable physical punishment of child labor. Thousands of words could be written alone on the subtle gestures every one of these performers do, whether it’s Martha rolling over to bite down on Sean’s forearm to cope with the pain, Vanessa Kirby’s intense body language (thousands of words could also be written on her incredible performance that is sure to open up any door in the industry the Mission: Impossible action star wants to be unlocked), the frantic moving around and changing of her body positions (all intimately captured with delicate camera movements from Mandy cinematographer Benjamin Loeb), and finally, the worst-case scenario itself.
I can’t think of anything more horrifying than someone watching their newborn baby turn blue while paramedics rushed to the scene. There’s a brilliant decision to follow Sean rushing through the house and out the door in panic waving them on inside, as Shia LaBeouf has become so excellent at nailing these unthinkable situations in a lived-in manner that it’s hard to believe he was ever part of the Hollywood system, let alone blacklisted from it. And then the screen fades to black, with the remaining 90 minutes or so prepared to delve into the sorrowful aftermath.
In theory, Pieces of a Woman is a bold piece of filmmaking considering a stillborn delivery is usually the kind of trope reserved to kickstart other elements of a narrative in motion. Here, it’s an acting showcase for Vanessa Kirby, and while she towers above the already mountainous heights expected from her, there’s not much left for the movie to go outside studying her bottling up those emotions and struggling to reclaim her life, not to mention the ensuing fallout between Sean and her immediate family.
Six years sober at the beginning of the film, it’s a given that Sean is going to relapse, but he also becomes a toxic individual whether it’s increasingly rapey behavior (there’s a sex scene that teeters the line between consensual and nonconsensual) or sudden outbursts of physical abuse (there’s a scene involving an exercise ball and a cigarette that is sure to make anyone flinch). There’s more to it; some of it feels authentic and some of it feels forced. As a construction worker building bridges, there’s also some cheesy on the nose symbolism from him comparing a bridge that inexplicably collapses to a stillborn birth, both of which have no concrete explanations.
The area where Pieces of a Woman almost comes close to matching the greatness of its first 30 minutes involves Martha’s complex relationship with her mother Elizabeth, who is encouraging her to work together with cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) on legal advice to put Eva away behind bars on grounds of murder. Everyone watching the film knows the midwife was nervous herself and made an effort to save the baby, but it’s also not the point. Pieces of a Woman shows how easy it is for tragedy to also sink others into being manipulated, effectively turning women against one another. Granted, Elizabeth is also trying to goad Sean into going along with taking things to court, there is a deeper pain rumbling around inside the matriarch, and it is something far more intriguing to explore than the half-baked domestic drama the script cooks up for the middle act.
Naturally, the film also focuses on the various ways Martha tries to numb the depression, that too with various degrees of success. When it comes down to it, the middle stretch is simply not as sharp as the rest of the narrative, as if Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber were unsure what to actually have these characters do while progressively jumping forward in time for Martha. For a brief section, it does transform into a courtroom drama, where Martha has to decide once and for all how or if she is going to move on from this, complete with a slight skewering of the things people will go to court over. Maybe that’s where the filmmakers always wanted to end up, but a rewrite to tighten Pieces of a Woman up could have taken this from great to a potential defining movie of this brand-new decade. As for Vanessa Kirby, there’s not a force on earth capable of stopping her from owning this study of fragility, identity, and bereavement.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com