Toronto Review: Pieces of a Woman
Cinema is, more than many other art forms, the sum of its parts — with so many people working in discrete roles, the whole endeavor is often a balancing act, an attempt to build something out coherent out of what could well be chaos. It’s this multitude of moving pieces that in so many cases prevents me from writing off any movie wholesale; usually there is at least one element that works, a bright spot that makes a film worth seeing even if the rest of it is a mess. In many cases it really is just that single saving grace, but Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman is illustrative of a more rare phenomenon, where the highs are so high and the lows so low that the film somehow finds its way to the middle of the road.
Pieces of a Woman has two things going for it. First, the film opens with a stunningly bravura sequence, viscerally capturing the birth of a child in an unbroken, nearly half-hour shot. It’s a deeply unsettling sequence in many ways: claustrophobically intimate, with smooth gliding camerawork and perfect positioning and emotional pitch by the cast, depicting intensity, joy, and — finally — heartbreak. The performances here carry through the rest of the film, and ultimately become the most significant takeaway. Vanessa Kirby is staggeringly good as a woman fighting for the opportunity to grieve in her own way, fighting against the pressures from her family to maintain autonomy over her mind and body. Shia LaBeouf comes close to matching Kirby’s deftness, playing across her as a husband and a foil. Neither are particularly big performances, especially in Kirby’s case — rather, they are both built on the two actors’ innate abilities to draw humanity and empathy out of moments of immense suffering.
Unfortunately, as good as the cast is, they’re fighting an uphill battle against a screenplay that starts to hurtle downhill immediately after the opening sequence. Written by Mundruczó’s partner Kata Wéber, the basic kernel of the story does seem to have some root in the writer and director’s personal experience, but the script is laden with cliché after cliché, turning what initially felt so realistic into a series of events that would seem to have almost no connection to reality if not for the performances at the core. These beats are so distracting that they threaten to collapse the film entirely: to a certain extent clichés are inevitable, and forgivable, but Pieces of a Woman shoots past that line with an utterly incredulous legal subplot and at least one late monologue so ridiculous that even the great Ellen Burstyn can’t sell it.
But despite all that, the film stays afloat on the backs of performances by Kirby and LaBeouf that have a real chance at standing among the best of the year when all is said and done — and if a film can make that claim, maybe it doesn’t need to do much else.