TIFF Review: 'Pieces of a Woman' Offers Pieces of Greatness

Directed by Kornél Mundruczó

Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Ellen Burstyn

BY Josiah HughesPublished Sep 15, 2020

Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, a film festival mainstay thanks to White God and Jupiter's Moon, delivers his English-language debut with Pieces of a Woman, a stark and at-times unbearably melodramatic film about a mourning couple who navigate the aftermath of a tragedy. The film's cast — which includes Shia LaBeouf, a Safdie brother, a mainstream comedian, and Shiv from Succession — is almost distractingly hip, and its tone is essentially a mash-up of two Kenneth Lonergan movies. Still, none of these missteps prevent it from offering glimpses of greatness.

Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) stars as Martha, a woman who has a home birth in the arms of her working-class, sober lover Sean (a bearded and gritty Shia LaBeouf). In a brutally tense, thriller-like scene that opens the film, the home birth goes through myriad disasters when the couple's planned midwife is unavailable and Eva (Molly Parker, whose ability to balance kind warmth with off-putting glances is unparalleled) steps in to help deliver the child.

It's a harrowing and laborious scene that concludes with both a birth and a death as the baby suffocates shortly after its born. It feels like an eternity, but it all takes place before the film's title takes the screen. From there, we're stuck with the aftermath, as Martha and Sean's life falls apart in front of their friends and family, including cold matriarch Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), sister Anita (Netflix comedy mainstay Iliza Shlesinger) and her boyfriend Chris (Benny Safdie, ditching his uber-hip Stone Island gear for a decidedly dorkier look).

Eventually, Elizabeth goes behind Martha's back to hire the family's relative and hotshot lawyer Suzanne (Sarah Snook from Succession) to file a civil suit against the midwife. As if that weren't enough "Oh, I recognize them!" from recent pop culture wins, The Last Black Man in San Francisco star Jimmie Fails also makes an appearance.

Theoretically, the film is about Martha's grief journey, but the entire story's motives twist and turn as they delve into affairs, drug abuse and an array of yelling matches set in ice-cold Boston (although Montreal is recognizable as a shooting location — if you look hard enough you'll spot signage for La Baie). It's a movie that feels an awful lot like Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, with hints of his own legal drama Margaret sprinkled throughout.

For all the ways Pieces of a Woman can be written off, however, it succeeds due to its cinematography, its heavy score and, most importantly, its performances. LaBeouf continues to prove that he's one of his generation's finest actors, and Kirby absolutely leaves a mark as she navigates extremes like painful childbirth and the nuances of grief in the aftermath.

As a whole, Pieces of a Woman is not great, but its moments of excellence are more than enough to warrant the price of admission. After all, pretty-good melodramas are a fantastic genre all of their own, and this one certainly belongs in the pantheon.

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