Kornél Mundruczó's uncompromising drama about a Jewish family facing trauma is powered by an unforgettable lead performance
Two films which screened simultaneously at last year's Toronto International Film Festival are centred around successful women struggling to return from singular traumatic experiences misunderstood even by those closest to them. But unlike Penguin Bloom, a formulaic drama starring Naomi Watts that sees the incident bring everyone together and remind them why they’re so close in the first place, the destabilising aftershocks of trauma in Pieces of a Woman paint a more pessimistic – and realistic – picture.
That bleak outlook on the unfortunate infallibility of our darkest memories is particularly prescient for Jews like the Weiss family – especially matriarch Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), a survivor of the Holocaust. What filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó's tragic drama sets out to do is teach Elizabeth's daughters Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Anita (Iliza Shlesinger) the same cruel lesson.
The first twenty minutes – a continuous, unbroken shot – consists of one extremely affecting sequence which is better watched than discussed. The aftermath of this ruinous incident is just as interesting. With Martha’s road to recovery booby-trapped by the traumas and imperfections of her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), mother, and others, her uneasy reintegration into society becomes an uncomfortable rollercoaster ride. Mundruczó is one step ahead of us, moving the camera from room-to-room, conversation-to-conversation, supporting our impression of a journey through a particularly haunted house.
To that end, Kirby’s deeply felt performance has rightly gained plaudits, and is more than ably supported by a brilliant ensemble cast which also includes Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Jimmie Fails, and a near-wordless Molly Parker. And if she weren’t already one of the most celebrated actresses of New Hollywood cinema, Ellen Burstyn, too, would be at the receiving end of serious awards conversation.
Yet it is Kirby who will be left wearing the most medals. Moaning and burping and aching her way through a stretch which is nothing short of a marvel, her remarkable and dedicated performance is the one which completes Pieces of a Woman, even if the film doesn’t quite know whether Martha is still the lead character in its latter stretches.
The most significant achievement of Pieces of a Woman, nonetheless, is its entirely non-judgmental approach to the subject matter. There’s enough vulnerable anger for five films here; considering events, it makes perfect sense, even if it makes matters worse. But that's the point. Pieces of a Woman is, after all, about the tragic ways things are.
Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch