Marked by a masterful vision, brilliant performances, and even plagued by a small tragedy of its own
PIECES OF A WOMAN (2021)
The death of a child is something I pray no one ever has to deal with. As a parent myself, it’s not really something you want to think about - let alone watch a movie about - yet here we are. I received the screener for Pieces of a Woman in late November, but I held off on watching it until early January because I honestly wasn’t mentally prepared. Now, this film’s shock isn’t quite on the same tier as Lars Von Trier, but it is still hard to stomach at times. It’s a raw depiction of death and pain, but it’s also the best depiction of death and pain that I’ve seen in years.
There are a lot of interesting decisions that director Kornél Mundruczó makes in his attempt to tell this story that are sure to be dissected and discussed for years to come and, in my opinion, all of them are brilliant. One of the film’s most notable moments is the delivery sequence, partly because it’s done in one long, continuous shot. In addition to the blocking, what’s most impressive about this sequence is the way in which Mundruczó isolates the different characters in such a small space. Through several silent closeups, he effectively shows us how they’re dealing with the baby’s birth. For instance, we see how nervous Vanessa Kirby’s character is as an expectant mom and we watch as the midwife (played by Molly Parker) becomes increasingly unsure of her process.
This isn’t the only continuous shot either. Towards the end of the film there’s a family gathering that gets the same treatment, only building to a boiling point rather than another tragedy.
Throughout the film, Mundruczó also employs several recurring visuals that touch on the film’s bigger themes. The most blatant is the bridge that Shia Labeouf’s character works at the very beginning. When we first see the bridge, it’s unfinished. He’s a part of the crew putting it together, and he even makes it a point that he wants his daughter to be one of the first people to cross over it upon its completion. While that never happens, Mundruczó constantly revisits the bridge and uses it as an instrument to measure the film’s timeline.
In its most tense moments, he also makes it a point to focus less on a character’s face and more on other parts of their body. One of the best examples of this is during the film’s climactic courtroom scene. When Kirby’s character begins to revisit the loss of her daughter, we see her processing the pain through the veins of her neck as opposed to her face. It’s a choice that shows the audience the pain she literally feels in her heart as opposed to the emotional pain she spends the entire film trying to cope with.
At its foundation, Pieces of a Woman is about a couple trying to deal with the loss of their child. However, it’s how they each deal with their pain that defines this film. For instance, the way Vanessa Kirby’s Martha shuts down sets into motion a series of events that ruins her and everyone around her. The failure to reconnect that the father, played by Shia Labeouf, consistently experiences is only made worse by her complete rejection of him in the aftermath of the incident. Sadly, that rejection only propels him backwards into an old drug habit.
As she sees her daughter spiral out of control, Martha's mom, played by Ellen Burstyn, also starts to develop guilt over the child’s death because she feels as if she never gave her daughter the tools to deal with such a tragedy.
Now, in addition to the main story, there are also couple of smaller plotlines that never feel fully explored. One of them actually regards Ellen Burstyn’s character. She is apparently suffering from some form of Alzheimer’s/Dementia - it’s never clarified. And while the way it’s brought up is honestly reminiscent to the iconic segue in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, it’s still made relevant enough in the film to not feel completely out of place. In fact, I think that even though it isn’t fully explored, the fact that Burstyn’s character can still vocalize her guilt so clearly (while conversely forgetting really basic things like where she last left her keys, etc.) speaks volumes about how much guilt she actually feels.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
This film has quite the ensemble. Granted that its three leads are its only A-List actors, everyone in this film is recognizable. Most importantly, they’re all good. In addition to the aforementioned Kirby, Labeouf, Burstyn, and Parker, Comedienne Iliza Shlesinger appears as Kirby’s sister. Succession’s Sarah Snook (try saying that five times fast) also appears as another one of Kirby’s relatives who helps take legal action against the midwife. Probably the most surprising appearance in this film though was Benny Safdie. Yes! One half of the incredibly talented directing duo The Safdie Bros. appears in this film, and he’s actually got some really great scenes/moments with Shia Labeouf.
Speaking of Labeouf...I honestly find it fascinating how the same person could deliver both one of the year’s worst performances I’ve ever seen (as Creeper, in David Ayer’s The Tax Collector) and one of the year’s best all within a few months. This is in my opinion his best performance to date, and I wholeheartedly think he might have had a really good shot at an Oscar for it too. However because of his most recent - and arguably career-ending - controversy, that will most certainly not happen.
Kirby and Burstyn have to be nominated though. Their performances are impossible to ignore here. If for some reason Burstyn is shut out, then at the very least Kirby has the best chance. In her short, yet distinguished filmography Kirby has continuously proven herself a force to be reckoned with. Like Labeouf, I also think this is her best performance to date. From the eager optimism of being a new mom to the overwrought existentialism that stems from her loss, she takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions that’s impossible not to empathize with.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
While Mundruczó has a penchant for the practical for most of the film, the actual delivery during the delivery sequence is probably the only part of the film that employs any special effects. At least I think it does because I can’t comprehend how he could’ve pulled it off without them. And I’m not just talking about the semi-graphic delivery of the baby. I’m also talking about everything that happens with it afterwards.
Regardless of how it’s done, the choice to have so much of the film grounded in reality makes it feel all the more realistic.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Academy Award winner Howard Shore's minimalistic score is very well balanced in the way that it never draws your attention away from the story, even as it amplifies the grief of all of the characters.
The way that the baby’s heartbeat is interwoven throughout the film is honestly the only real noteworthy use of sound design. While subtle, it establishes a small, yet effective connection between the audience and the child that also makes it easier to empathize with Martha.
I’d be lying if I said this was an easy film to watch. It’s not, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling or good. It’s premise, while tragic, is grounded in reality and happens more often than we’d like to imagine. In both its depiction of sadness and grief, as well as its exploration of how pain manifests itself, it's honest in a way that most films ever aspire to be. Marked by a masterful vision, brilliant performances, and even plagued by a small tragedy of its own, I’d still recommend it. Regardless of already making the rounds during 2020’s festival circuit, Pieces of a Woman is technically the first great film of 2021.
NETFLIX will release PIECES OF A WOMAN on January 7th, 2021