Between the recently wrapped Venice International Film Festival, the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival, and the soon to kick-off New York Film Festival, award season has officially begun. One of the titles getting plenty of attention is Pieces of a Woman, a drama starring Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn, Benny Safdie, and Vanessa Kirby. What’s the hype and how does it stack up? Let’s dive in.
Pieces of a Woman has a prime spot in the TIFF line-up as a Gala selection, where films are spotlighted for the talent attached. Along with a cast studded with noteworthy performers, this title boasts at its helm Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, who previously awed with his dog-centered drama, White God.
TIFF 2020’s lineup is rich with well-reputed filmmakers and shining stars. So, Pieces of a Woman didn’t stand out from the pack until Venice announced their awards, naming Vanessa Kirby as Best Actress. From there, critics flocked to TIFF’s online screener library to see this heralded performance. Soon buzz began to build, but not for the film as a whole.
Written by Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman centers on a pregnant executive (Kirby), who ahead of her due date endures bickering between her blue-collared and proud partner (Shia LaBeouf) and her posh and self-righteous mother (Ellen Burstyn). With a scruffy beard and an unsophisticated sense of taste, Sean is nothing that Martha’s mom, Elizabeth, would want for her. Still, Elizabeth is happy to help the couple by buying them a car, which needles Sean because of the implied backhand of the gesture. The pressures on Martha only grow when a family tragedy makes unexpected allies of her mother and baby-daddy, leaving her alone in her grief.
Kirby plays a woman who watches her expressed emotions so as not to wound those who love her. However, as she suffers, that concern vanishes. She laughs coldly, barges into conversations with a brusque bravado, faces down savage criticisms, and ultimately must speak her truth, terrible and poignant before an audience who may well judge her for it. Yet, the most powerful part of this performance comes down to a 23-minute long take in Act One.
Spoilers for the premise of Pieces of a Woman: Martha’s baby dies. The bulk of the film is about the aftermath of this loss. The scene that has critics talking actually comes before the title card of the film, which boldly hits at the 33-minute mark.
After swiftly establishing Martha, Sean, Elizabeth and the tensions of their bonds, Pieces of a Woman cuts to the night of the ill-fated at-home birth. In one seemingly continuous take, Mundruczó follows the action from the arrival of the midwife (Molly Parker) to the living room floor where she examines Martha, to the bathroom where Martha soaks in a tub, to the bedroom where the birth plays out, to the realization that something has gone very wrong, to the arrival of the paramedics.
This scene is remarkable; the camera fluidly follows three actors who never break character, who seem fully in the moment of anticipation, fear, joy, then world-shattering agony. Parker, with gentle hands and a nuanced expression, exudes calm as she enters. Then, a flicker of fear flashes across her face, and the tone of the scene shifts as we realize what the parents do not.
Kirby sheds any ego to lean into the primal yowls and vulnerability of the birthing scene. Her veins protrude, exhibiting her strain; her eyes swim, pronouncing Martha’s pain. Meanwhile, LaBeouf radiates with frantic energy, eager to aid by cradling his lover, easing her into a tub, or snapping pictures of their fresh-from-the-womb baby girl. Then come the shouts of panic and terror.
What about the rest of the film?
This scene is a dazzling centerpiece, offering a drama that is deceptively simple in its depiction, yet rich in details. The performances here are raw, electric, and subtle, creating an enveloping atmosphere that puts us right in that room as a helpless witness. Sadly, what follows won’t be near so captivating or daring.
The drama jumps in segments, a few months down the line. Martha returns to work, where she is assaulted with a barrage of dropped jaws and pitying stares. Sean cries in high-pitched, feverish explosions, while Martha stays icy. This drives her family into fits of condemnation, citing tradition, personal history, and heartache. Brewing at the center of the film is a conversation about a woman’s right to her grief, but this gets muddled amid plot twists that seem randomly plucked from soap operas. Another woman, professional, smart and sexy, is brought in to draw Sean’s eye. Monologues are unfurled, because why waste Burstyn’s skill at throwing down drama? A snarling plot point turns two characters into cruel caricatures, leaving Martha alone in any semblance of complexity.
Then, Martha’s emotional journey is crudely shaped around the fate of the midwife, who faces criminal charges over the child’s death. This leads to the kind of speech that makes for a juicy Oscar reel clip. To her credit, Kirby delivers, edging from steeliness to fragility then bittersweet resolution. But then, the film delivers an epilogue that undercuts its heroine with a cheap ploy to please audiences. It’s a pat on the head following a punch in the chest, just as dizzying and unsatisfying.
Does Pieces of a Woman live up to the hype?
Yes and no. With ardent melodrama, a standout sequence, and a central performance that shoulders an otherwise wobbly narrative, Pieces of a Woman is precisely the kind of movie that can grab Oscar attention in the Best Actress race. Think Judy, Harriet, or Bombshell for some recent examples. The film as a whole, however, is far less likely to get Oscar love. In part, because it loses the sense of its characters to cave to heart-wrenching conventions. Beyond that, there are other fest favorites already emerging that are far more daring and satisfying. We’ll have more to come on titles like Nomadland, One Night in Miami, and Ammonite. With the Oscars delayed, there’s plenty of time to dig into these films and comparisons.
For now, to look at Pieces of a Woman on its own, without comparison: it’s fine. It’s a Lifetime Movie dabbling in an Art House mood. It’s moving because of its subject and some solidly striking performances. However, when it loses the thread on its narrative, leaping the timeline and tossing characters into corners that feel more contrived than earned, it simply falls to pieces.
Pieces of a Woman premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Gala slate. Recently acquired by Netflix, its streaming debut is currently TBD.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF