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VENICE 2020 Competition

Review: Pieces of a Woman

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- VENICE 2020: Kornél Mundruczó's new film is a decent character study, and its strength mainly stems from the performances of the three great leads

Review: Pieces of a Woman
Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman

After winning Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Prize with White God [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kornél Mundruczó
film profile
]
in 2014, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is back with a new film, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese and part of this year's main competition at the Venice Film Festival. Pieces of a Woman [+see also:
trailer
interview: Kornél Mundruczó and Kata W…
film profile
]
is a drama revolving around a couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), on the verge of parenthood. Their lives are changed irreversibly after the tragic death of their daughter following complications during a home birth. The midwife, played by Molly Parker, is immediately accused of criminal negligence, and the case seems to divide public opinion, receiving huge media coverage nationwide.

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The story, penned by Kata Wéber (Jupiter's Moon [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kornél Mundruczó
film profile
]
, White God), begins on 17 September and is set in modern-day Boston. After an initial scene that rapidly introduces the main characters, Martha and Sean, alongside Elizabeth (Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn), Martha's possessive mother, and their relationships, we witness the entire home-birth process. It starts with what seem to be innocuous and normal contractions along with the sweet, candid relationship between the two, followed by the arrival of the midwife, her attempts to reassure Martha, the woman's intense pain and the 911 call, when things literally get out of control. The director tasks DoP Benjamin Loeb (A Winter's Tale [+see also:
film review
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film profile
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, Mandy [+see also:
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film profile
]
) with shooting the whole sequence with a variable-speed camera, which places the viewer in the standpoint of an entity, a presence that permeates the filmed environment. Fast-paced shots effectively convey the moments of anxiety and uncertainty during the labour, while slower-paced ones almost act as a time-suspension device, and this choice is particularly evident when the two kiss each other while Martha is lying in the bath and later, when tragedy strikes.

The entire episode is well rendered and is a strong scene on its own, supported by the compelling performances of the trio. And that is just the prologue of the film, which lays the foundations for the rest of the work. The loss of their daughter becomes the catalyst for the main conflict – namely, the troubled relationship between Martha, who, besides experiencing the obvious pain of such a loss, is also burdened by her domineering mother and her insistence that she should take a stance against the midwife during the trial, and Sean, who is keen to move forward and “misses the old Martha”. Thus, the traumatic event forces the couple to explore an abyss made of desperation, rage and frailty, which appears to be endless and inescapable. In the second part, the role of Elizabeth becomes even more crucial, and we get to know the possible reasons (and related backstory) behind her manipulative, oppressive behaviour towards her daughter and her husband. An intense, one-shot, close-up monologue by Burstyn serves this purpose, and this takes place following a turbulent quarrel between her character and Kirby's.

On the whole, the film is a good character study, mostly driven by the solid performances of the three lead actors. The main struggle it encounters is in terms of its originality: while the initial home-birth sequence is striking and beautifully crafted, the emphasis placed on it seems so much higher than that placed on many of the other scenes, which appear to pertain to a classical family drama – nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, the metaphor for rebirth could also have been delivered via more innovative means than some sprouting apple seeds.

Pieces of a Woman is a Canadian-Hungarian co-production staged by BRON Studios and Little Lamb, in association with Proton Cinema and Creative Wealth Media. Its sales and distribution are entrusted to BRON Releasing.

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