REVIEW: Pieces of a Woman (TIFF 2020)
What is it that brings two people together, tautly stringing their hearts with a passion that feels irreversible? And when is that binding agent of seemingly irrevocable love not strong enough to halt the forces that pull them apart? Pieces of a Woman is a dauntless examination of the story of Sean (Shia Labeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a young couple reeling from the loss of their child, desperately grasping at the air for something to clutch as their grief sends them free-falling. Directed by Kornél Mundruczó and written by Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman is a study in trauma’s unforgiving fatefulness and the gut-punch of tragedy that makes coping indecipherable to not only those around us, but sometimes ourselves as well.
We are introduced to Martha’s belly before we’re introduced to her. Immediately she is posited as an extension of the life that grows inside her, rather than the inverse of which we’d expect. This isn’t only how the film positions us to see her, it’s how she sees herself and how she’s treated by others. The only person we see care and look after Martha as more than a parasite to motherhood is her partner Sean, and it’s these performances that suffuse soul into the film.
The chemistry between Labeouf and Kirby is exquisite. We see their love devolve, but never dissipate, as they ostensibly trudge on in their efforts to cope. Where corny puns, playful sarcasm, and electrifying eye contact used to fill the air, a tragic, serrated silence has now taken its place as Sean and Martha can hardly look each other in the face. The film’s choices in relaying the power of quietness and gaze is acute in it’s emotional capability. Extended bouts of silence force us to feel the pain in the passing moments. Where we used to associate eye contact with the passion of their partnership, we now feel an excruciating sense of dread and despair for each of them when others look on in pity, or when their own eyes meet in searing anger and agony.
Pieces of a Woman forces us to dispose of any preconceived notions of what it means to grieve, handling the topic with emotional delicacy while executing it with candid abandon. It shatters any proposition that there is a “correct” way to recover from unequivocally arresting grief, constantly refreshing our unforgotten memory of the anguish that Sean and Martha are unable to escape. This almost aggressive bombardment of reminders feels like the film’s objective to align us with it’s characters in the deepest emotional regard, prompting us to recognize that the only thing that lasts longer than tragedy are the reminders of it. With her breasts leaking milk and the post-pregnancy bleeding requiring her to wear diapers, Martha’s body commits an emotional betrayal, constantly reminding her of all that she’s lost. Concurrently, the people who won’t let them forget and the children that run about with innocent intentions serve as reincarnated manifestations that yank their scabbing wounds right back open.
The film’s blunt portrayal of pain is brilliantly supplemented by its commitment to atmosphere. The use of inter-titles over imagery of the lake establishes chapters as the water flows and freezes, drifting shards of ice in wintry black waters until it eventually thaws, paralleling the weather of Boston with the film’s own emotional storm. However, Mundruczó’s greatest achievement in the direction of Pieces of a Woman was his choice to indulge in extremely long takes and to leave the camera lingering on an individual even as conversations push on.
These scenes allow the actors to shine, and there’s not a single weak performance to be found among the bunch. Kirby is undoubtedly the standout as she lives in her quiet, speechless moments, though we can always see the eruption brewing behind her gaze and stiffening presence. These long takes not only give us insight into the interiorities of these characters, but compel us to live in all of the emotion, expression, passion, and pain, disallowing us to look away when our hearts swell to threatening extents.
Pieces of a Woman is a film that doesn’t ask for much. It simply implores the audience to watch — the filmmaking makes clear that we must only sit and absorb. The feeling follows naturally, thrashing itself within our chests in brutal waves that break against the space behind our ribs. It’s a throat-clenching confrontation of the hardened realization that tragedy is nondiscriminatory and often without reason or blame to be had. Yet, while it’s a plaintive presentation of that deepest human refusal, it’s also powerful in it’s fearlessness to force us into its lesson — to stop fostering denials that exacerbate our suffering. It doesn’t make the truth easier to swallow, but it surely eases the digestion once we’ve taken the leap. Spinning a wretched web of how deep the pits of life can valley, Pieces of a Woman posits faithful hope on how we might obtain our own personal reclamations of recovery — by our own time and standards.