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The risk of love, the price of loss – ‘Pieces of a Woman’

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While a lot has been made about the separation of art and artist in recent years, the reality is that we’ve always been faced with that divide – we just have a LOT more access to the personal beliefs and actions of our artists. How effective – and how necessary – the separation can be varies from individual to individual.

It’s unfortunate that “Pieces of a Woman,” directed by Kornel Mundruczo from a script by Kata Weber, will become part of that conversation due to the recent allegations against Shia LaBeouf, who stars in the film. Not because LaBeouf’s actions are somehow overblown – if true, they certainly are not – but because this talk will overshadow what is otherwise a powerful and gutwrenching film.

The real star is Vanessa Kirby, who presents one of the most complex and nuanced portrayals of maternal grief that we’ve seen onscreen in years. Hell, maybe ever – she’s that good. And the film itself digs its fingers into your soul, unrelentingly showing the difficulties, overt and subtle alike, that come with dealing with loss. It’s a stunning achievement whose many accomplishments may be overshadowed by the brutal real-life misdeeds of one of its players.

Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) are a young couple living in Boston. She’s an executive, he works construction. Theirs is a happy life, one on the verge of being rendered all the happier thanks to the impending birth of their first child. Both are delighted by the notion of becoming parents, with all the excitement and nervousness that comes with that.

The two have opted for a home birth, but when the time comes, things don’t go as planned. When Martha goes into labor, the midwife they had been working with is unavailable due to another labor; the woman sends in her stead another midwife, a woman named Eva (Molly Parker, “Words on Bathroom Walls”). A painful labor – one portrayed in an incredible single take one-shot that is simply stunning – ends in the tragic death of the baby.

From there, we watch the unravelling of Martha and Sean. Each of them spirals in their own way – Martha proves unable to move forward in the manner in which everyone else seems to think she should. As just one example, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, “Lucy in the Sky”) wants her to press charges against the midwife (and sue for civil damages). On the other hand, there’s Sean, whose grief manifests in anger and an unfortunate relapse after more than six years of sobriety. We mark the time in small leaps forward – a couple of weeks here, a month there – as the relationship between the two slowly, steadily crumbles.

As time passes, we see Martha’s family – her mom, yes, but also her sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger, “Spenser Confidential”) – pressure her to move forward with the lawsuit, believing that it could provide the closure that she so clearly lacks.

Both Martha and Sean are adrift, unable to rekindle or reconnect. They’re left unanchored, the empty space that should be occupied by their child haunting their every interaction. Neither of them is able to move beyond their grief, despite their very different efforts to do so. Martha withdraws, Sean lashes out. Martha trudges through quicksand, Sean goes off the rails. And always, always, the shadows of what might have been float unaddressed between them.

The first act of “Pieces of a Woman” is one of the most powerful cinematic stretches I’ve seen in years. The film takes half an hour just to reach the title card, but earns every second; just masterful filmmaking. And again, that one-shot – breathtaking. I obviously don’t actually know what childbirth is like, but people who DO know have said that it is one of the most honest depictions of the act they’ve seen on screen.

It is marvelous work from Mundruczo and Weber, longtime creative partners who are making their English-language debut with “Pieces of a Woman.” Both have shown a proclivity for crafting elegant and stark portraits that reflect the impact of loss; this film continues in that tradition. There’s a dance taking place between elegant sadness and brutal despair, with emotional impact being derived from both sides. This is a film that is as discomfiting as it is powerful, the kind of movie that may prove too difficult to watch for some viewers.

So let’s talk about Vanessa Kirby, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice in September. Hers is a performance that impresses on multiple levels. There’s the blunt force trauma of the opening act, of course – the childbirth sequence that will likely stay with audiences for some time. But one could argue that her subsequent portrayal of the disorienting stasis of grief and loss is just as powerful, capturing as she does the equilibrium between internal brokenness and external functionality. Either performance would be noteworthy; the fact that both are coming from the same person in the same movie is extraordinary.

As for LaBeouf, well – he’s excellent. He’s a talented guy. Unfortunately, he also seems to be a terrible person, which serves to undermine his presence here. A very good performance that will almost certainly be overshadowed by his personal failings, and deservedly so; we can only hope that that shadow doesn’t also hide Kirby’s brilliance.

The rest of the cast shines as well. Burstyn is a legend who unfailingly offers a strong performance any time she’s on screen; she’s wonderful here. Ditto Shlesinger and Parker, both of whom find moments to excel in small roles. Other highlights include Sarah Snook as Martha’s cousin/lawyer and Benny Safdie – better known as one-half of the writer/director Safdie Brothers – as Anita’s husband.

“Pieces of a Woman” has some narrative issues; it wobbles a bit in the middle and doesn’t necessarily fully stick the landing. However, if we do not see Vanessa Kirby on every single Best Actress shortlist moving forward, I will be shocked – it is a truly brilliant performance, one that transcends whatever other issues one might have with the film or those participating in it. In the end, the pieces might not totally fit, but they’re all here.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 January 2021 11:56

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