There’s an elephant in the room. Let’s get rid of it. Shia LaBeouf, recently accused by ex-girlfriend FKA twigs of emotional, physical and sexual abuse alongside animal cruelty, stars in Pieces of a Woman, Kornél Mundruczó’s drama about a mother grieving her newborn daughter’s death. His is not the principal role but the primary supporting role. Watching a film free from contextual concerns is an experience no viewer could ever reasonably claim; separating the art from the artist tends to involve acts of cognitive dissonance so strenuous they get in the way of actually appreciating said art. It’s likely impossible for the socially conscious, compassionate viewer to watch Pieces of a Woman without bemoaning his presence, possibly even flinching at his behaviour during a few harrowing scenes. He’s in this film and that presence inevitably brings it down, though this is not his film. It’s Mundruczó’s film; it’s writer Kata Wéber’s film; it’s lead Vanessa Kirby’s film; it’s Netflix’s film; it’s the viewer’s film. And with that, his name shall henceforth go unmentioned and his career will hopefully go silent.

Mundruczó has long been a filmmaker uncomfortably torn between duelling extremes. He favors audacious technical achievements and bold stylization yet tells emotionally driven stories with a naturalistic mise-en-scène. His reluctance to accommodate any hint of moderation in his filmmaking is as evident in Pieces of a Woman as ever before, though this is arguably his least high-concept venture to date. It chronicles a year in the life of Martha (Kirby), starting with the birth and immediate death of her daughter, told in pivotal episodes as she navigates wildly fluctuating emotional states. Its gestures toward formalism feel arbitrary and lack consequence, such as the specific dates marking the commencement of a new episode in Martha’s turbulent year, or the occasional conspicuous long shot distracting from the cast’s committed work in embodying their characters. These gestures, however, are sporadic and of largely negligible significance.

One such gesture is not at all negligible – indeed it’s essential. Mundruczó, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and camera operator Benoit Jones-Vallée orchestrate one of the director’s signature long takes just a few scenes into the film: a near half-hour birth scene that comes to define, even overshadow the remainder of the film as it does Martha’s life. It’s a knowingly virtuoso feat of filmmaking but a necessary feat too, not only outlining the extraordinary, traumatic, exhilarating process of giving birth but also chronicling this specific birth for forensic reasons. The plot of Pieces of a Woman, if there even is a plot in the traditional sense, is driven by the endeavors of Martha’s family to prosecute her midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for her daughter’s death and complicated by Martha’s own ambivalence toward even engaging with their efforts. The scene is also appropriately stirring, the close, fluid camera capturing a trio of superb performances, carrying the viewer through an ultimately punishing emotional journey to a brutal end. The film’s title card finally appears and you enter the rest of Pieces of a Woman in something of a daze.

From there, it’s fair to say that the film never quite recaptures the brilliance of that scene, a daring achievement that finds the perfect synergy between Mundruczó’s uneasy stylistic bedfellows: technical bravura and optimal emotional sincerity. It’s also fair to say that the film never tries to recapture that brilliance, though. The birth is its centerpiece, its formative sequence. It had to be so towering just as the ensuing 90 minutes could never even strive to be. From the half-hour mark onward, Pieces of a Woman reels from this scene, bruised and staggering forward with no clear sense of purpose or direction. Mundruczó mostly dispenses with his usual formalism, displaying clearer than ever just how skilled a director of actors he’s always been. Perhaps working with a cast of well-known names adjusted his focus a little, though it’s not without cause – this is a cast of well-known names at the top of their respective games. Parker is so natural, so unpretentious, so deep in her role she’s almost unrecognizable upon first appearance. Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother, Elizabeth, is profoundly compassionate – ever a supple, vibrant actor with a remarkable range, Burstyn has too long been underappreciated by Hollywood, so it’s fabulous to see her take on a part worthy of her talent. Still, it’s Kirby who impresses most, thoroughly believable in her incredibly taxing birth scene, then even more arresting as she fleshes out a woman stripped to her barest, most vulnerable self. She has to convince as a woman simultaneously overcome by and overflowing with the most vivid emotions and rendered hollow by the sheer weight of them, and does she ever convince!

In the end, Mundruczó and Wéber’s gambit doesn’t entirely pay off. Their film is like a burst of brilliant energy followed by only residual brilliance, spurts of banality and mediocrity filling in the gaps. It’s an earnest work, full of emotional complexities that it recognizes it can only hint toward, never explore in full and neatly resolve, though it’s to their credit that they don’t impose some kind of artificial resolution. Pieces of a Woman ends satisfactorily, accepting the crippling force of the content it’s covered and the resultant crippling effect this force has had on itself. It’s not a perfect film by any means but it brandishes its imperfections with shameless clarity, like any Mundruczó film. It’s just that this time the imperfections feel necessary toward doing a story like this proper justice.

A knotty, uneasy exploration of grief so raw even its own filmmakers can’t work out what to do with it, this is nevertheless an extremely moving and highly impressive feat of directing and acting.
69 %
Pieces of Brilliance
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