Venice 2020: 'Pieces of a Woman' Will Break You Then Rebuild You
by Alex Billington
September 6, 2020
Life is not only happiness and love and wonderful moments, as much we all wish it were. With all the good in life, there is also the bad, and every last one of us struggles greatly with the weight of emotions during these tough times when they find us. Each one of us responds and reacts differently, and it's not always easy to pull yourself back together after a tragedy. Pieces of a Woman is a film by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, and writer Kata Wéber, and to be blunt: it's a film about grief. Not just grief itself, but about all five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It is an exceptionally emotional film, realistic in its depiction of people dealing with grief, and also vividly cinematic. It's the kind of film what will break you and then, through an honest depictions of good people, rebuild you by the end.
Mundruczó's Pieces of a Woman opens with an unforgettable ~20 minute scene starring Vanessa Kirby as a very pregnant woman named Martha giving birth at her home with her husband, Sean played by Shia LaBeouf, joined by a young midwife. She's not the midwife they planned to have there. And something goes wrong. The baby doesn't make it. The film follows the two as their relationship begins to deteriorate and they struggle to deal with the emotional turmoil and grief that overwhelms them. The filmmakers referenced Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine as one of their inspirations and yes - that comparison is spot on. You will feel every emotion watching this film. It's not only a sad and tragic story, there's some moments of hope, some moments of levity, and some moments of relief. And ultimately, it is about reaching that final stage: acceptance. As Alfred once said to Bruce, "Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up."
This is exactly what Martha must learn to do, pick herself up, work through the misery and sadness. But it takes time. It always does… And as each month goes by, things change. She can't be with her lover anymore, there is no longer any connection. She is increasingly frustrated and angry and distant. Sean also changes. He is also frustrated and angry. He wants revenge, but then he begins to feel nothing, and decides to move on in his own way. I'm blown away by this film, feeling the rollercoaster of emotions in two hours that we usually feel in two years. I cried. Multiple times. It is the essence of humanity: our struggles, our feelings, our frustrations, our loves, our needs, our desires, our sadness, captured by the beauty of cinema. It's not only the performances that make it so real, but the emotion worked right into the script. The rawness is part of what makes it so moving. And I think everyone can take what they experience watching this film to heart.
The first moment I knew this film is something special is during the birth scene early on, when she makes her way to the bath, one of Sigur Ros' iconic songs plays as an emotional score in the background. We don't hear much of the song, but it's carefully used in just the right way. And the way the filmmakers handled this balance of score and storytelling is an example of much care they put into every last part of this story. There are times when the visual metaphors are a little too on-the-nose - air being slowly let out of a ball, a bridge being built. But this never bothered me. Isn't the whole point of cinema to use creative visual metaphors to enhance the story? Indeed. And the visuals are powerful, they build even more on top of the story itself. And they make the film enjoyable to watch, as it's not just about the story, it's about what we see on screen, too.
Best of all - the performances from the entire cast in Pieces of a Woman are the key to its excellence. There's a few surprise appearances from talented folks: Jimmie Fails from The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a small role (I love him so much), one of the Safdie Brothers (Benny) has a small role in one of the pivotal scenes, and Sarah Snook has an important role. And then there's Ellen Burstyn, who is always outstanding, but there's one scene in particular in which she delivers a speech so gripping and so passionate that I wanted to break out into spontaneous applause at the end. Most of all, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf give career-best performances that seem effortless, yet are so powerful and deep and complex and believable, it's almost as if we're watching two real lovers fall apart. Bravo to everyone involved in this film.
Alex's Venice 2020 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing