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Pieces of a Woman ★★★★

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Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Benny Safdie

Released: Toronto International Film Festival

A heart-stopping, single-take 30-minute introductory birthing scene in Pieces of a Woman is too exhilarating to convey in words. It is visceral, dynamic and riveting with Vanessa Kirby delivering a tour de force performance within such scene. Still, disappointingly the remainder of Pieces of a Woman with an abrupt tonal shift fails to be as compelling. Pieces of a Woman may also be remembered for being one of the films with a lengthy opening scene before the credits arrive, some 30 minutes later.

Fortunately, Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Martha in Pieces of a Woman is scene-stealing enough to be awarded the Best Actress Prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and carries the majority of the film. Every ounce of pain encountered by Kirby’s Martha is vicariously felt as an avalanche of emotions erupt in a tense, nerve inducing frenetic scene depicting joy and subsequently, tragedy. However, such intensity of emotion may be triggering in this tale of the nature of grief and the aftermath.

By dividing Pieces of a Woman into monthly segments, or acts, Autumn to Spring may make such an emotive tale more palatable. Therefore, such parts of Martha’s life seem akin to hibernation stages in nature with the emergence of new or at least renewed life in the Spring. Pieces of a Woman operates at a slow pace trawling through those different stages of grief and the inevitable impact on Martha and her surrounding relationships with friends and family alike. At times, it is not an easy watch with parallels to the levels of emotional rawness seen in Blue Valentine and Marriage Story.

In life, such types of emotional anguish are unfortunately not communicated often, resulting in sensations of loneliness apparent in Martha’s return to work, which is met with stunned silence. Pieces of a Woman sensitively examines the different approaches in managing grief personally compared to the societal expectations. Given that there may not be conversations following a tragedy or perhaps the required level of support required from well-meaning loved ones is lacking or misguided, it may be difficult to deduce the best approach for coming to terms with loss.

Within Pieces of a Woman, a degree of symbolism helps navigate Martha’s emotional and mental state as she attempts to regain her confidence and resume the life that she knew.  Martha’s black nail polish is neatly applied in earlier scenes; however, as more tension and emotion are on display in later scenes, the nail polish itself is also chipped, and the nails are raw. It is a very effective technique from director Kornél Mundrucó to convey Martha’s emotional state without exposition and Munruczó’s skilful direction of Kirby is impressive to witness.

The film equally relies on the notion of space and the outdoors to express emotions with stunning wide-angle shots by a port. Such setting also conveys the gulf surrounding Martha and her relationships with the outdoor space is a visualisation of the inner barriers constructed by a grieving Martha, as part of Mundruczó’s vision. The outdoor setting conjures up images of an outlet to assist with Martha’s healing. Another effective example of Mundruczó’s decision to portray such silent expressions of emotional devastation in a naturalistic, artistic environment. The cinematography of the port itself is mesmerising with a hypnotic rhythm depicting the stillness and frustration felt by the characters.

However, this shift in pace for the majority of Pieces of a Woman compared to the nerve inducing, compelling opening means that the film is uneven overall. The tonal shifts of Pieces of a Woman may be explained by the fact that this is an adaptation from a stage play of the same name by director Mundruczó and writer Kate Wéber. As such, most of the acts seem to dilute the film’s initial intensity, which is unfortunate. However, the portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship helps keep the film’s temperature at a similar scale in later scenes but still lacks that dramatic effect. It is delightful to observe Ellen Burstyn’s performance as a caustic, domineering mother under Mundruczó’s direction. Those dramatically tense mother-daughter scenes between Kirby and Burstyn are enthralling to watch and do elevate the emotional stakes once more in Pieces of a Woman when the film loses momentum.

Disappointingly, the talented Jimmie Fails is woefully underused in Pieces of a Woman with insufficient character development. Again, this is where Pieces of a Woman fails to live up to its earlier potential and is a missed opportunity by Mundruczó. The film is Kirby’s and this may indeed be a career-defining role for her. Pieces of a Woman is highly emotive and is unafraid to explore the full depths of emotional devastation, with a refreshing approach, which will engage its audiences but it lacks consistency.

Pieces of a Woman is out in select cinemas on January 1st and on Netflix January 7th

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