By Nadia Dalimonte
Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Pieces of a Woman has the ingredients of a melodrama. While its constructing doesn’t always work, the piece that makes it resonate is the fragmented way in which director Kornél Mundruczó studies a character exhausted to bits from unspeakable grief. With an unrelenting focus on moments of discomfort, and an absolutely draining first act, the film has an unwavering emotional charge. Vanessa Kirby is the glue holding all the fragments together with a knock-out performance that is soul-stirring beyond the screen. It’s a performance that will linger in my head for a long time.
Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are a couple reeling from tragedy in very different ways. After a devastating loss, their relationship shifts into rearranged fragments of a past life. The severe level of disconnection and emotional conflict takes its toll under one roof. There’s one striking scene, actually more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, of Martha sitting on her sofa while Sean proposes a road trip to Seattle. The two just had a conflict about the baby’s room. He’s talking in the background, promising how good Seattle would be for them, while she pulls a mimicking face. It’s a testament to Kirby’s skill that she’s given such a lived-in portrayal full of remarkable detail. Her on-screen partner LaBeouf, however, is slightly miscast in the film. He’s a fine actor and it’s not a bad performance, but something feels stilted about his approach.
The film explores relational grief that questions the “right” way to mourn. Martha is constantly at the receiving end of how she ought to grieve. It’s an insistent line of questioning coming from not only Sean, but also Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). The two have a rocky relationship that is being pushed closer and closer towards a breaking point whenever they share scenes together. The tiniest moments - Martha flinching away upon her mother’s reach - speak volumes. Considering the emotionally revealing breaking point, a strong monologue by Burstyn who no doubt gives her absolute all, I think the film could’ve benefitted had Mundruczó unpacked the mother-daughter relationship further.
The subject matter of Pieces of a Woman is heavy to watch for many reasons, one of which being the heart-wrenching opening sequence. The rest of the film slowly stumbles, broken up into multiple dates flashing on screen. The fragmented storytelling that works wonders as a character study of Martha doesn’t always work when trying to fit other pieces of the puzzle in. The screenplay by Káta Weber gets lost in various ideas about the right thing to do, and descends into a courtroom drama that hinders the final act. But what remains the key piece of this film, from beginning to end, is the powerhouse performance by Vanessa Kirby at her best.