TIFF20 REVIEW: Pieces of a Woman [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 126 minutes
    Release Date: December 30th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Kornél Mundruczó
    Writer(s): Kata Wéber

There will be consequences.

Every bit of promotional material I’ve read about director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber‘s Pieces of a Woman (kudos to their shared “a film by” credit) has billed the work as a look into the emotional grieving process of a woman who just lost her newborn child. Even the title highlights her experience above all others because she’s the one who gave birth. She’s the one who everyone is turning to for his/her own cues as to how to act. She’s the one whose body is ostensibly put on trial alongside the midwife for whom the city has already declared guilt. So I sat down ready to watch Martha’s (Vanessa Kirby) struggle picking up those pieces to find her path forward. That’s not, however, what I received.

This isn’t necessarily a problem if the script gives everyone involved equal weight. And for a time it appears as though it will since Martha is justifiably withdrawn and quiet in the aftermath of what happened. The filmmakers therefore shift their focus onto her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) for narrative propulsion. What this does, however, is render her silence into permission for their voices to take control. They begin to simultaneous play the victims and purveyors of justice in order to do what they believe Martha won’t: prosecute the midwife (Molly Parker‘s Eva) for negligent homicide and put her away for five years. Mundruczó and Wéber stay on that course for so long that Martha becomes a supporting player in her own story.

Why that’s a mistake stems from the reality that Martha remains the lead. She’s the one who must endure the physical and hormonal changes that occur to a new mother without also having the baby. She’s the one who must deal with the looks of coworkers and unwarranted pity of strangers. It starts to seem as though the world is purposefully and constantly reminding her of what she lost with every step she takes. And rather than stop and ask her how she feels, Sean and Elizabeth make it about themselves. Their own fear and anger make it so they see Martha’s almost clinically pragmatic reaction as weakness instead of numbness. Suddenly everything to do with this tragedy becomes a circus and she’s the animal being exploited on-stage.

Martha becomes the scapegoat by omission for her family and the filmmakers. And the less we see of her, the less we can invest in her plight for the inevitable climax that will re-center her as our focal point. We barely spend two minutes with her as she deals with the PTSD of witnessing parents and children everywhere she goes and almost an hour with Sean and Elizabeth going behind her back to hire her cousin (Sarah Snook‘s Suzanne) as the lawyer to place all the blame at Eva’s feet. They want absolution. They want a clean conscience because they’ll have to turn their ire at Martha without it. So we start to resent everyone. We resent Sean and Elizabeth’s selfishness and Mundruczó for making it the point.

It’s through no fault of LaBeouf or Burstyn as they knock their roles out of the park. He’s the loquacious construction worker who turned his life around to become six years sober and she’s the affluent matriarch using her finances as a means to wield influence. That Elizabeth uses Sean to go behind Martha’s back makes sense because he’s expendable to her. That he does so willingly is in character too because he’s a volatile figure prone to self-destruction when everything is stacked against him. But who are they outside of being the antagonistic forces in Martha’s life? Who are they but external characters interacting independently from the woman they say that they’ve put first in their minds? Nobodies. They’re obstacles for her to eventually climb over.

And because we never get to spend time with Martha, all that noise is rendered too much to contend with when the result is so obvious. We see the birth in real-time courtesy of a brilliantly orchestrated twenty-something minute take of contractions, screams, and the weight of death. We know what happened. We know what the three people involved did and didn’t do. We know that the trial playing out on TV screens during the months that follow is nothing but an excuse to deflect from the guilt and frustration of knowing this tragedy was nothing more than what everyone who chooses a homebirth knows is possible but refuses to believe will happen to them. Having a nonsense notion of criminality looming large for the duration prevents actually healing.

That is the real tragedy because it renders Kirby’s transcendent performance inert. It takes her ability to deftly move from mourning to rage and positions her as a trump card waiting to do the right thing and end what’s become a melodramatic charade that’s gone on far too long. I say that not because I think Martha should have come to terms with what happened sooner than five months. I say it because we have to watch great actors elevate exaggerated histrionics despite having an actor who’s authentically pouring her heart out and begging for the camera to turn back her way. That we spend so little time on Martha’s journey is a wasted opportunity since she’s already given up on Sean and her mother when we do.

All that does is prove the rest was filler. Sean and Elizabeth’s refusal to actually put Martha’s needs first make it so they act in opposition to her and thus isolated from her plight. Let the trial carry on in the background, cut all their undercooked sub-plotted drama (affairs, bribery, dementia, etc.), and actually give Kirby the spotlight she deserves. Mundruczó and Wéber are simply delaying the only plausible conclusion otherwise. I’m at least glad they didn’t try and divert from that too since it would have made things worse. The hopeful epilogue tacked on before the end credits does a lot of work at undercutting what happened in just a couple minutes as it is. It almost makes it so Sean’s low economic status was the blame.

courtesy of TIFF

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