Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Iliza Shlesinger
It’s so difficult, sometimes, to separate the artist from the art. Recent revelations about Shia LaBeouf’s despicable behaviour toward FKAtwigs has put an immediate pall over his work. I love American Honey but I feel conflicted about revisiting it. I’ve added The Peanut Butter Falcon to my Netflix Watchlist, but now I skim passed it. It’s that same sense of something having been irrevocably tainted one gets when confronted by the works of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. The same shudder at the sight of a Weinstein producer credit. Something toxic here.
LaBeouf stars here in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, new to Netflix, but he isn’t the star. That position is taken – in both hands – by the powerhouse force of Vanessa Kirby, for whom awards nominations will come afluttering over the coming weeks, no doubt. Any reservations about supporting LaBeouf’s career rehabilitation (something that should not happen) by watching his work is countered equally by the draw of Kirby and her director Mundruczó for this hotly-tipped property.
Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) are an expectant couple living in Tacoma, Washington. He works in construction; she’s more corporate; already telling of an extant void between them. There are already minor stresses in the peripheries; largely invoked by Martha’s controlling mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) and Sean’s sense of class inferiority. In a sequence captured in one roving shot that lasts well over 20 minutes, Martha gives birth in their apartment. Following this, the couple are plunged, suddenly, into an intense period of grieving. Pieces of a Woman documents a chilly emotional fallout, a counterpoint to the encroaching winter outside.
The days are charted against a backdrop of the choppy estuary that Sean’s construction company are in the process of bridging, and the gulf between banks feels like a loaded metaphor for the distance between the couple following their terrible loss. But the stanchions of the bridge reach toward each other faster than these broken people. Sean’s outbursts of rage and frustration feel all-too-real (especially now that they’re loaded with this meta-connotation). His sobriety is quickly obliterated. Martha, meanwhile, is in a downward vortex all of her own, avoiding any situation that pushes her close to the raw feelings she’s desperately fleeing from.
Sean’s repeated “Penny for your thoughts” comments to his fragile partner speak of their disconnect and his bewilderment at how to fix things. That’s one of the focuses here; what can be fixed, what can be salvaged, and what it is about us that can’t accept when there are no solutions. No quick wins. Tying into this, Pieces also confronts our urge to find fault and apportion blame. To feel vindicated but also, more crucially, some sense of resolution. To be sated. But the chapters in life aren’t neatly delineated – particularly for Martha and Sean – and there we find angst.
As the title infers, this is particularly a study of Martha, and Kirby is a steely presence throughout. She feels tightly held in her body for much of the picture, as though encased in a corset of her own defenses. Hard, yet also brittle. In a savvy bit of casting, popular American comic Iliza Shlesinger plays Martha’s concerned sister Anita, though she’s afforded little to do aside from watch her screen sibling unravel.
Mundruczó plays things handsomely and sincerely. Lighting is tasteful, that handheld camera never loses control. The picture has the austere poise and grace of a prestige piece (it ’tis the season after all). Still, there’s plenty of room for clunky choices. A Sigur Rós needle-drop in the midst of the film’s epic shot throws us out of the otherwise well-nurtured immediacy. A rolling, inane conversation about The White Stripes that tries to fold in the motif of complex couples feels clumsily staged and similarly conspicuous. A flagrant conflict of interests in a developing court case seems like a gross oversight for the sake of a bit of cheap drama that only the audience is privy to. And at 2hrs and 6 minutes, the amount of room in the picture becomes conspicuous itself. Mundruczó identifies the awkwardness of loaded silences, but he also gives mileage to a good deal of emotional hand-wringing (Burstyn is responsible for much of this).
Part of the difficulty in making a film about open-ended suffering is how do you get to credits without suspending the viewer in the same malaise, the same disappointment. Screenwriter Kata Wéber goes some way to navigating a get-out for Martha – and us – and Kirby sells it with bloodshot sensitivity. But it’s a fleeting hit, slightly out of character, and arguably undermined by the film’s contentious little coda. Ultimately, the hoariest of cliché sentiments regurgitated by Anita’s partner Chris (Benny Safdie!) winds up being the best this piece has to fall back on. Kirby makes the picture worth the mileage, but the chances you’ll want to go through this trauma again with her are slim.