Pieces of a Woman

 

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Drawing on their own experience, Hungarian wunderkind Kornél Mundruczó and his partner Kata Wéber create an emotive, intimate drama powered by bravura performances. 

 
Pieces of a Woman

Pregnant pauses: Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby

 

As a work of domestic violence, Pieces of a Woman is this year’s Marriage Story, with the Oscar heat to go with it. The film is not violent per se, but the raw, close-up emotions leave little to the imagination, if never gratuitously so. The woman in question is Martha Weiss, a high-powered Boston executive from a privileged background who is living with a blue-collar construction worker, Sean Carson. The first piece of Martha we see is her convex belly, stroked and admired at an office shindig, before Martha heads home to bond with Sean. While Martha and Sean seem an unlikely couple, the love between them is apparent from the outset, in spite of the latter’s obvious reservations about Martha’s mother, who has just bought them a new baby-friendly car. Then, moments before the drama moves up a gear, we are treated to an instance of calm, the camera unmoving as Martha hangs up a picture in the nursery-to-be, before sitting down to contemplate the domestic arena of the couple’s future. In the next scene, with the camera galvanised into life, Martha’s contractions begin…

 

As with so much drama, there’s a specific trigger that unleashes a stream of action, of emotions taking on a life of their own. In its realism, the sequence of childbirth is uncomfortably gripping, its icky immediacy hitting home with the power of a deeply private home movie. As Sean and Martha, Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby are totally in the moment, wholly convincing as a couple whose private shorthand is a given. Hovering on the outside is Ellen Burstyn (now 88) as Martha’s mother Elizabeth: proud, patrician, fearful, forgetful and manipulative. Here we have three acting styles thrown into the ring which, under the respectful direction of Hungary’s Kornél Mundruczó, works wonders. Each actor, in their own way, is a revelation, particularly Kirby, as she’s playing an American casualty who has lost her bearings. No longer will she be best known for playing the kick-ass sister of Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw or the reckless sister of Queen Elizabeth in The Crown. She is sensational.

 

If the film’s coup de théâtre fails to carry the impact one might have hoped for, it’s because the characters, in spite of their stark moments of intimacy, remain unknowable. Mundruczó's camera hovers at the side-lines, sometimes at a tasteful distance, tilting the drama off-balance. It’s a technique that prompts both a metaphorical craning of the neck and a sense that we are eavesdropping on others’ most private interactions. It’s a European sensibility in the tradition of Bergman and Kieślowski: that is, drama where the heart is. Mundruczó has crafted a modern masterpiece, even if, at times, the character of Martha remains frustratingly inscrutable.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Domenic Di Rosa, Tyrone Benskin, Nadia Catino.

 

Dir Kornél Mundruczó, Pro Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson and Aaron Ryder, Ex Pro Sam Levinson and Martin Scorsese, Screenplay Kata Wéber, Ph Benjamin Loeb, Pro Des Sylvain Lemaitre, Ed Dávid Jancsó, Music Howard Shore, Costumes Rachel Dainer-Best and Véronique Marchessault, Dialect coaches Rea Nolan and Jerome Butler.

 

Bron Studios/Little Lamb/Creative Wealth Media-Netflix.

122 mins. Canada/USA/Hungary. 2020. Rel: 7 January 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.