By Brodie Ziegler
Graphic By Susan Rahimi
Shown at both the Venice International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival late last year, director-writer duo Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber took their story of a woman plagued by tragedy from the stage to the screen, as Pieces of a Woman received a widespread release on Netflix this January. Receiving fairly positive reviews, Pieces of a Woman delivered its illustration of couple Martha Weiss and Sean Carson, played by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf, after familial devastation over the course of around half a year. Initially portrayed as a hopeful and young duo, Martha and Sean not only come into conflict with relatives, including Martha’s mother-in-law Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger), and cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook), but also each other.
Despite the promises of its title, Pieces of a Woman presents more of a fractured narrative than a shattered female. Character dynamics aren’t fully-fledged out, and subplots are thrown into an uninspired cocktail only to fall through the strainer when the final drink is presented to the viewer. Pieces of a Woman feels like it’s building up to one final emotional payoff, a looming hope that acts as an incentive to keep the audience motivated as characters wander throughout a sleek but mundane environment and search for some form of compensation for their pain. These reparations may lie in the arms of another, or in the ink of a checkbook, but the film never rounds these characters or relationships out enough for the audience to genuinely care about their possible indemnity.
Mundruczó leaves his mark with Pieces of a Woman in the very first scene. Lasting thirty minutes, and preceding the seemingly missing title card, the opening scene is mostly told in one shot, highlighting the brutal tragedy that befalls the Weiss family on the evening of September 17. What follows is an episodic examination of grief, its different manifestations throughout a singular family, and mainly, how it shatters Martha. Perhaps the odd focus on the other members of the family despite the connotations of the film’s title helps to further engulf Martha in an isolated light. This broad scope is paired with the conflictingly intimate and yet isolating cinematography of Benjamin Loeb, and an overbearing score by Howard Shore. These intense factors, combined with raw and admiral performances overall, create a very specific tone for Pieces of a Woman, but one that when paired with a disappointing narrative fails to meet the expectations set by the phenomenal opening scene.
During my viewing, I had the inescapable thought that this film doesn’t truly bring anything new to the table, perhaps other than another long shot for the history books and a powerful Vanessa Kirby performance. The fable of a distancing, grieving couple made up of an aggressive husband who conflicts with his rich mother-in-law, and a reclusive wife whose self-isolation creates tension with those closest to her has been seen before. In one particularly tense scene, Martha’s brother-in-law, Chris (Benny Safdie), restates a moral he heard: “time heals all wounds.” The moment is presented in an intriguingly meta way, as the desperate attempts of a simple family member trying to offer cheap reconciliation to a grieving woman. However, by the time the credits roll, after an incredibly contrived ending, the final simple theme seems to be that time does heal all wounds, only adding to the feeling that we’ve seen this film before.
It’s no mistake that the most developed and captivating character Martha was also the best performance in Vanessa Kirby. While Ellen Burstyn and admittedly, Shia LaBeouf, also gave noteworthy portrayals, their characters had little going for them, other than fundamental stereotypes and unresolved arches. And, while Vanessa Kirby takes her character of a mourning woman, broken down by the expectations and weight of the relationships suffocating her, Martha’s arch lands exactly where the audience expects it to as well. Despite the brutal subject matter, there are times where the film feels like a Hallmark movie in its formulaic third act, only Pieces of a Woman depicts despair instead of love in wintertime.
Perhaps if Pieces of a Woman held back from throwing this multitude of broken shards, it would have been able to put itself back together by the end. Instead, the viewer is forced to remain, with broken glass lying at their feet, and a feeling of disappointment lingering in the air.