Stay for the harrowing opening scene, then turn it off, and choose to remember Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman as the greatest short in recent memory.
There has been so much hype surrounding Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman since its premiere last September at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. After watching the opening, extended scene, you will know why. It is a harrowing experience that is beautiful, complex, and heartbreaking. Then, oddly, the rest of the 80-plus-minutes is a letdown. A story whose handful of great ideas never come together in a cohesive way.
Vanessa Kirby, who took home the prize for Best Actress at Venice, gives a stirring performance as Martha Weiss, a woman who is coming to grips with losing her child. She used to be warm, loving, full of life. Now, a year later, she is cold, distant, and is growing apart from her partner, Sean (Shia Labeouf).
The ones that love her the most, her sister Anita (Instant Family’s Iliza Shlesinger), thinks she needs to get help, while her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn) makes browbeating look like an Olympic sport. All of this surrounds Martha while taking part in a very public trial of the midwife (the invaluable Molly Parker) charged with negligence.
Pieces of a Woman‘s screenplay is adapted by Kata Wéber, from her and Mundruczó’s own stage play. This is a script and film that is ripe with possibilities and juicy roles for its’s all-star cast. The problem is, after that opening sequence, which is an instant classic, the rest of the film is stuck in neutral while pivoting between characters. The story takes a back seat and is strung together with a bunch of melodramatic scenes that felt like each esteemed actor is campaigning for their next Oscar nomination. They interact in a way that is not at all natural. You know, the type of speech where anyone can just stand up, yell, make their point, and walk away as if they had their star-making moment.
If that was not bad enough, the final scene, in which Martha and her family face Parker’s midwife, begins with the trope of all courtroom clichés, of someone making a speech that is highly irregular. In fact, that line is repeated so many times in a short period, I laughed instantly. It takes away any power or goodwill the audience has built up to take the story seriously. Sarah Snook’s district attorney does not help matters. She repeatedly, like a doll who keeps getting its string pulled, tells Martha not to worry because people hate her, As if this is evidence enough to convict anyone and the fact that DA’s are not victim’s attorneys.
Of all the performances, I found Parker’s generated enough complexity to make the film interesting, but she is sadly absent for much of it. Everyone is good here, LaBeouf has the most interesting character, and delivers an underrated turn as a father struggling with grief, substance abuse, and a marriage that continues to crumble on a daily basis. Burstyn, of course, shines, and we talked about how great Kirby is.
So, why is that not enough? The opening act is a stunner. The performances are sublime. Those, however, don’t add up to the equal parts that Pieces of a Woman need to become an effective story. Too much effort is put on “grand” communication that is overwrought between characters and not enough natural dialogue and story context were utilized. This is how we end up with a courtroom scene that is laughable (even if used to show a character’s closure).
Stay for the opener, turn it off, and choose to remember Mundruczó’s film as the greatest short in recent memory.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.