If only Pieces of a woman were interested in giving more space to their central female character.
Pieces of a woman is notable as Vanessa Kirby’s first leading film role. The actor has had a long career in theater and television and has impressed with a few strong supportive twists in blockbusters like how Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Hobbs and Shaw. However, Pieces of a woman It’s the first time Kirby has been the center of attention, and the film gives her the juicy role of a young woman trying to come to terms with a birth that ended in tragedy when her life falls to pieces around her.
Kirby is great at Pieces of a womanand offers a central performance that is multi-layered and nuanced and often opts for inwardness instead of extroversion. It’s a calm but rich performance. Kirby deserves a lot of credit for her work. However, Pieces of a woman Refusing to give Kirby the recognition it deserves, instead drowns this dramatic powerhouse in a sea of prestige drama stereotypes and larger than life supportive twists and turns from actors like Shia LeBeouf. Kirby is somewhat lost in a movie that should have been focused on her through no fault of her own.
If Pieces of a woman is a story of a broken response to grief, it often feels like some of the pieces are lost because the film has no real interest in watching them.
Kirby’s appearance in Pieces of a woman is powerful and understated. Plus, it’s powerful because it’s an understatement. The most compelling thing about Martha is how calm she is and how she refuses to let other people define their own efforts to process her grief. Martha’s response to her trauma is mainly to suppress it and avoid dealing directly with it. Kirby spends several scenes in the background while the characters chat around Martha, and the film is more effective for that.
This approach works pretty well in terms of characterizing Martha. Because Kirby resists the urge to grow up, smaller gestures get a much stronger response. When Martha pauses in a shop to sniff an apple, it is a gesture that carries a surprising amount of weight because it feels like the first one she consciously chose as she moves through the movements. (Of course, the script later offers a practical pseudo-psychological explanation for this gesture, but it is more effective in isolation as an example of Martha after … something.)
The problem with Pieces of a woman is that the film operates on a completely different register than Kirby’s performance, and that does little for the film. While Kirby goes silent, everything goes on around her in the movie according to. Of course, this makes some sense in the abstract. After all, if Kirby is offering a withdrawn and introspective performance, it makes sense for the film to contrast this by turning up the volume on everything else. The contrast is good after all. When used well, it actually increases the effectiveness of certain artistic decisions.
In contrast to Kirby’s performance Pieces of a woman is a film that has absolutely no reluctance. Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber have never met an award season cliché that they could resist. This is evident even when you measure Kirby’s performance against that of the supporting cast, particularly Shai LeBeouf as her husband Sean and Ellen Burstyn as her mother Elizabeth. Not only is LeBeouf and Burstyn spending their scenes stuffing landscapes in their mouths, they’re much more interested in them doing so.
After all Pieces of a woman is a story of Martha’s grief, but she makes the decision to open Sean. Even before the tragedy, Sean is the center of attention. The film spends its opening minutes making sure the audience knows everything they need about Sean. He is a construction worker who upsets his wife’s family over her fortune, and Elizabeth in particular for insisting on using that fortune as a club to humiliate him. After the tragedy, Sean spends almost every scene screaming how he’s doing feelingand the camera spoils him.
At some point, when Sean and Martha are trying to determine what exactly happened to them, Sean storms loudly out of a meeting with a doctor, while Martha quietly stays in place. It’s an insightful scene because it demonstrates the priorities of the film. The camera could stay with Martha, who is sitting there and enduring the humiliation that comes from her own grief, or the camera could follow Sean out of the room because she thinks his plays are more interesting and compelling. The camera follows Sean.
Similarly, Elizabeth herself is a collection of clichés that could easily fuel some more memorable awards season dramas. Shortly after the film’s tragedy, Martha discovers that Elizabeth has dementia. This kind of physical or mental decline is a cliché in such films, 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 movements that are extensive over Dementia – what it is like to live with the disease and what it is like to live with someone who lives with the disease. In contrast, Pieces of a woman Throws this stereotypical shorthand for the awards season on a supporting character and essentially gives Ellen Burstyn a license to try to steal the Kirby film. As with Sean’s stereotypical class anxiety and LeBeoufs “Capital-A” Acting, Pieces of a woman makes Burstyn a focal point that takes the film too far from Kirby.
Indeed, with characters like Sean and Elizabeth, Pieces of a woman pushes itself into the realm of price-season self-parody. Elizabeth is not straight She has dementia also a Holocaust survivor for the players “Oscar Drama Bingo” At home. Not only does Sean throw loud, self-centered tantrums, which the movie finds more interesting than the more nuanced performance of his nominal lead role, he has one too rough unprofessional matter with his lawyer who is also his wife’s cousin.
This is all so absurd that some of the movie’s elevated and surreal elements are barely registered, such as a weird court case that plays out as a subplot in the background. The trial is an obviously dramatic fiction that exists to force Martha to verbalize her grief because Pieces of a woman only cares about subtlety or nuances when they are later prepared for a volcanic explosion.
The trial, however, is another set of rotten movie clichés. When Martha speaks arbitrarily in court, the judge admits “It is most unusual” but he would “Want to hear what she has to say.” What Martha has to say, of course, is pretty much an articulation of a theme that the film has marked with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: the idea that tragedies happen and that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for how cruel the universe is, and Not everything can be properly explained, although that would make closing it a lot easier.
They are all basic things that have been very much influenced by the script, but Pieces of a woman insists on treating it as profound insight and revelation. This is the level of emotional complexity at which Pieces of a woman operated on: Martha is traumatized by an arbitrary event that seems to happen for no reason, but comes to an end once she accepts that sometimes things happen for no reason. Pieces of a woman never seems to pause to consider that Martha’s grief may not be resolved by saying the obvious.
Pieces of a woman shows a virtuoso piece of filmmaking from Mundruczó. After a few introductory scenes Pieces of a woman enters an impressive sequence structured to look like very long take how Bird man or the opening scene of The revenant. The scene follows Martha and Sean during their attempted birth at home, and is a dazzling technical feat as the camera moves through the home environment as the tension gradually builds and builds. In purely practical terms, it’s a dazzling achievement.
Ultimately, however, it feels like yet another example of the movie losing sight of Martha on its own. As the camera spins around, it keeps taking Martha out of focus. The decision to structure this sequence as a long shot prevents Mundruczó from resorting to Martha’s reactions while the chaos unfolds around her. As a passive figure, as a woman giving birth, Martha is not particularly dynamic, so the camera is naturally drawn to the other figures, who run and walk up and down and lift and panic. Martha is pushed out of her own story.
Pieces of a woman should have been an impressive vehicle for a powerful performance by Vanessa Kirby. Instead, this performance is only partially visible.