TIFF 2020

Pieces of a Woman review – a devastating, all-encompassing melodrama

Vanessa Kirby delivers a career-best performance in Kornél Mundruczó's portrait of a woman processing the loss of her baby

It takes at least half an hour before it feels safe to exhale during Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s Pieces of A Woman. This staggering melodrama, mapping a woman’s journey as she processes the loss of her baby, thrusts the viewer into an arresting, visceral tragedy for the first 30 minutes of the film. We are forced to look at life and death with uncomfortable closeness, feeling the pain of two people we’ve hardly met as though they’ve been in our bones for years.

Vanessa Kirby delivers a piercing, marrow-deep performance as Martha, of a grief so intimate and incomprehensible it often feels destabilising. It’s not an entirely solo show – it is hard to recall Shia LaBeouf as the chirpy kid from Even Stevens as you gaze upon his volatile heartache as Martha’s partner Sean. But when Kirby flinches, when she pauses, all you can do is hang on to her every breath.

Mundruczó directs Wéber’s script with a solemn eye – a kind of unwavering respect that testifies to the deep trust shared between the two filmmakers, romantic partners in real life. This makes for an unrelenting experience, one often coloured by vicious, resentful remarks between family members (Ellen Burstyn is steely, often destabilising, as Martha’s mother Elizabeth). The notion of broken family feels shattered into a million pieces here, refracting the pain felt by the couple and their loss; the shame felt by Elizabeth for the years she can’t make up for; the guilt and regret that plagues Suzanne (Sarah Snook) for the freedom and intimacy she once tasted but was unable to hold onto.

Poetry moves within the seams of Pieces of a Woman, a film with a constant eye on the wideness of Boston’s Charles River and a scent of apples swirling in the frosty air – even if these images illustrate melodramatic conventions a touch too frequently at times. Emphasis is placed on each hurting person’s relationship with death, growth, forgiveness and liberation, however literal the metaphors of building and burning bridges.

Pieces of a Woman tells us early on that Martha and Sean are taking their midwife to court over their daughter’s death, though this is no courtroom drama. Those scenes are pivotal (and Molly Parker is heartbreaking as the accused, Eva), though we only reach them – and listen to Martha – as a result of her own internal reckoning, the tools she finds to live through her pain. Not to heal from, necessarily, which might imply that this is a pain that can be smoothed over and moved on from. No, she fights, she hurts, and she lets this love, shattered and bruised, simply exist. It’s devastating, yet Kirby feels it all with impossible grace.

Pieces of a Woman was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.

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