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Non-Review Review: Pieces of a Woman

If only Pieces of a Woman were interested in allocating more space to its central female character.

Pieces of a Woman is notable as Vanessa Kirby’s first cinematic lead role. The actor has a long career in theatre and on television, and has made an impression with a couple of strong supporting turns in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Hobbs and Shaw. However, Pieces of a Woman marks the first time that Kirby takes centre stage, and the film gives her the juicy role of a young woman trying to come to terms with a home birth that ended in tragedy, as her life falls to pieces around her.

Where’s LaBeouf?

Kirby is great in Pieces of a Woman, offering a central performance that is layered and nuanced, one that often opts for interiority instead of extroversion. It’s a quiet performance, but a rich one. Kirby deserves a lot of credit for her work. However, Pieces of a Woman refuses to give Kirby’s performance the credit that it deserves, instead drowning out that powerhouse dramatic in a sea of prestige drama clichés and larger-than-life supporting turns from actors like Shia LeBeouf. Kirby winds up somewhat lost in a film that should be centred on her, through no fault of her own.

If Pieces of a Woman is a story of a fractured response to grief, it often feels like some of the pieces get lost because the film has no real interest in looking.

Pregnant pause.

Kirby’s performance in Pieces of a Woman is powerful and understated. More than that, it is powerful because it is understated. The most compelling thing about Martha is how quiet she is, and how she refuses to let other people define her own efforts to process her grief. Martha’s response to her trauma is largely to repress it and to avoid direct engagement about it. Kirby spends several scenes quietly skulking in the background as characters talk around Martha, and the film is more effective for that.

This approach works rather well in terms of characterising Martha. Because Kirby resists the urge to go large, smaller gestures take on a much stronger resonance. When Martha pauses in a store to sniff an apple, it is a gesture that carries a surprising amount of weight because it feels like the first thing that she has consciously chosen to do as she moves through the motions. (Naturally, the script offers a handy pseudo-psychological explanation for this gesture later on, but it is more effective in isolation as an example of Martha reaching for… something.)

Seriously, Pieces of a Woman is for people who thought Batman vs. Superman didn’t have enough actors yelling, “Martha!”

The problem with Pieces of a Woman is that the film operates in an entirely different register than Kirby’s performance, and that does the film few favours. While Kirby goes quiet, everything around her in the movie goes loud. Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense in the abstract. After all, if Kirby is offering a withdrawn and introspective performance, it makes sense for the movie to contrast that by turning up the volume on everything else. Contrast is good, after all. If it is used well, it actually heightens the effectiveness of certain artistic choices.

Unfortunately, unlike Kirby’s performance, Pieces of a Woman is a movie that has absolutely no restraint. Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber never met an awards season cliché that they could resist. This is obvious even measuring Kirby’s performance against those of the supporting cast, notably Shai LeBeouf as her husband Sean and Ellen Burstyn as her mother Elizabeth. It isn’t just that LeBeouf and Burstyn spend their scenes cramming scenery into their mouths, it’s that the film is much more interested in letting them do so.

A woman alone.

After all, Pieces of a Woman is a story of Martha’s grief, but it makes the choice to open on Sean. Even before the tragedy, Sean occupies the centre of attention. The movie spends its opening minutes making sure that the audience knows everything it needs to about Sean; he is a blue collar construction worker who resents his wife’s family for their wealth, and particularly Elizabeth for insisting on using that wealth as a cudgel to humiliate him. After the tragedy, Sean spends nearly every scene yelling about how he’s feeling, and the camera indulges him.

At one point, as Sean and Martha attempt to determine what exactly happened to them, Sean loudly storms out of a meeting with a doctor while Martha remains quietly sitting in place. It’s a revealing scene, because it demonstrates the movie’s priorities. The camera could stay with Martha, who is sitting there enduring this humiliation compounded on top of her own grief, or the camera can follow Sean out of the room because it considers his theatrics more interesting and compelling. The camera follows Sean.

She dement well.

Similarly, Elizabeth herself is a collection of clichés that could easily power a couple more forgettable awards season dramas. Shortly after the film’s instigating tragedy, Martha discovers that Elizabeth is suffering from dementia. This sort of physical or mental decline is a cliché in these sorts of movies, an excuse for an older actor to remind voters of their talents. After all, this season alone includes Anthony Hopkins in The Father and Stanley Tucci in Supernova.

However, The Father and Supernova are moves that are largely about dementia – what it is like to live with the condition and what it is like to live with someone living with the condition. In contrast, Pieces of a Woman throws that stereotypical awards season shorthand on top of a supporting character and essentially gives Ellen Burstyn license to try to steal the movie out from under Kirby. As with Sean’s stereotypical class anxieties and LeBeouf’s “capital-A” acting, Pieces of a Woman lets Burstyn become a centre of gravity that pulls the movie too far from Kirby.

Been and Sean.

Indeed, with characters like Sean and Elizabeth, Pieces of a Woman pushes itself into the realm of awards season self-parody. Elizabeth isn’t just suffering from dementia, she is also a Holocaust survivor for those playing “Oscar drama bingo” at home. Sean isn’t just throwing loud self-centred tantrums that the movie finds more interesting than the more nuanced performance of its nominal lead, he is also having a grossly unprofessional affair with his lawyer who is also his wife’s cousin.

This is all so absurd that some of the movie’s more heightened and surreal elements barely register, such as a strange court case that plays out as a secondary plot in the background. The court case is an obvious dramatic contrivance that exists as a way of compelling Martha to verbalise her grief, because Pieces of a Woman is only interested in subtlety or nuance if they are set-up for a volcanic explosion later on.

The mother of all problems.

However, the court case is another collection of lazy movie clichés. When Martha asks to randomly address the court, the judge concedes “it’s highly unusual” but he’d “like to hear what she has to say.” Naturally, what Martha has to say is pretty much an articulation of a theme that the movie has signposted with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: the idea that tragedies happen, and that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to how cruel the universe is, and not everything can be neatly explained even though that would make closure a lot easier.

It’s all basic stuff, and has been very heavily seeded through the script, but Pieces of a Woman insists treating it as a profound insight and epiphany. This is the level of emotional complexity on which Pieces of a Woman operates: Martha is traumatised by an arbitrary event that happens for what appears to be no reason, but finds closure once she accepts that sometimes things happen for no reason. Pieces of a Woman never seems to pause to consider that perhaps Martha’s grief is not something that can be resolved by a statement of the obvious.

Kirby your enthusiasm.

Pieces of a Woman features a virtuoso piece of filmmaking from Mundruczó. After a few introductory scenes, Pieces of a Woman kicks into an impressive sequence that is structured to look like on very long take, like Birdman or the opening scene of The Revenant. The scene follows Martha and Sean during their attempted home birth, and is a dazzling technical accomplishment as the camera moves through the domestic environment as the tension gradually builds and mounts. On a purely practical level, it’s a dazzling accomplishment.

However, it ultimately feels like another example of the film losing sight of Martha in its own indulgence. As the camera whirls around, it constantly takes focus away from Martha. The decision to structure this sequence as a long take prevents Mundruczó from cutting back to Martha’s reactions as chaos unfolds around her. As a passive character, as a woman giving birth, Martha isn’t especially dynamic, so the camera is naturally drawn to the other characters who are running and pacing and lifting and panicking. Martha gets pushed out of her own story.

Pieces of a Woman should have been an impressive vehicle for a powerhouse performance from Vanessa Kirby. Instead, that performance is visible only in pieces.

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