Navigating Despair – Pieces of a Woman (2021)

Not every movie is meant to have a large audience, and sometimes the films with a narrow focus manage to make their message more impactful. Pieces of a Woman is one of the most gut-wrenching films I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s incredibly well made and driven by exceptional performances.

Kata Wéber’s screenplay follows a youngish couple in the massive crater of grief that is formed after a home birth results in the death of their infant daughter. While not advertised as being a true story, it’s undoubtedly and passionately personal. That intimate space is immensely painful, but there’s a profound truth that comes from taking the time to navigate the often unexplored. Kornél Mundruczó’s direction really serves to highlight the deeply personal nature of this relationship. It’s shot with a lot of unconventional closeups and the whole home birth scene that starts the film is done in one continuous take (which is used for a number of shots but mainly early on). Cinematography Benjamin Loeb deserves a ton of credit, not just for blocking that particular scene so effectively, but for understanding the nature of the script and making the camera bring the audience into that experience. There are a number of scenes that are difficult to watch because of their visceral nature, but that is the point and I thought they were captured very well in the visual storytelling. 

The film is incredibly well made, but it’s also very performance-oriented. Vanessa Kirby is magnificent in the lead as Martha, who just suffered this horrific loss and is left to navigate the immense pit of grief she’s left in as she and her partner drift farther away from one another in how they process that grief. Kirby’s performance is powerfully raw and guttural when it needs to be but she also carries her pain quietly throughout most of the film while it’s loud and bombastic for others around her. It’s in those moments where her body language and physical acting is remarkable. 

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby sharing a tender moment in the film’s catalyst moment

I know a lot of people have issues with Shia LaBeouf and his presence in this film will turn a lot of people off, but he is a talented performer. Here as Martha’s partner, Sean, we see the rare instance of the inverted character arc as the pain from their collective loss sends him down a self-destructive path. If you hate LaBeouf, this movie certainly affords you the opportunity to do just that and if you don’t hate him you can just appreciate the complicated, broken, and often repuganat character portrayal. 

Ellen Burstyn is fantastic as the helpless and misguided mother

Academy Award-Winner Ellen Burstyn is fantastic as well, playing Martha’s rich and disconnected mother. Her wealth provides her with insulation and there’s a moment during the film where she grandstands about the difficulty of her own upbringing and the struggles of her own mother in raising her. The scene is important because it shows how much conviction she has in her belief that she’s right while still being completely wrong and so distanced from her daughter. Her continued insistance that her daughter take her advice becomes loathsome but Burstyn really makes you feel it.  

There were also good supporting performances from familiar faces. Comedian Iliza Shlesinger plays Martha’s sister Anita, Benny Safdie (Good Time) plays her husband Chris, Sarah Snook (Succession) has a small role as the family lawyer, and Jimmy Fails (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) has a minuscule role as one of Martha’s co-workers. The quality of the project certainly drew a lot of talent.

Pieces of a Woman is about as “adult” of a movie as you could possibly imagine. It has a very narrow audience, but it’s a very well put-together effort, from the very obvious elements down to Howard Shore’s music. Even the costumes by Rachel Dainer-Best and Véronique Marchessault speak volumes about the characters’ internal turmoil. 

Recommendation: The filmmaking was outstanding even if the subject is pretty rough. Check it out if you’re interested, but be warned.


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