Tapping into grief can be a difficult exercise. If you push too far, a film can get stuck in its grief. Others add too much comedy, leading to a lack of stakes. For Pieces of a Woman from Kornél Mundruczó leans into the darker side of loss, but remains energetic thanks to standout performances throughout. The undeniable Vanessa Kirby delivers a star-making turn that keeps the audience engaged at every turn. The film contains electricity and vibrancy that can only be achieved through a total commital to tone.
Pieces of a Woman follows Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), who expect their first child. However, when a mishap with the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) results in the loss of their child, the relationship begins to breakdown. Martha must fight through her grief, her family (Ellen Burstyn, Iliza Shlesinger, and Benny Safdie), and the upcoming trial. Meanwhile, Sean struggles with the death of their child through unhealthy outlets.
Kirby transcends the screen from start to finish. Her performance borders on virtuoso as she relives grief over and over again throughout the film. She lives in the rollercoaster of emotions forced upon Martha, conveying each moment of nuance with absolute skill. Mundruczó gives Kirby free reign, and she rewards him with a gravitational performance. From the extended birthing scene to her emotional showdowns with other characters, her presence elevates the material.
While Kirby dominates the screen, the rest of the players deliver powerful performances. Burstyn delivers her own titanically sad turn. Evoking memories of Laura Dern’s Oscar win from just last year, Burstyn capitalizes on her screentime. LaBeouf continues working through his issues in his work. Drug and alcohol abuse plague the working-class hero. His inability to cope reeks of toxic masculinity, and his lack of maturity for the moment. LaBeouf adds pathos into the haunted man, and his scenes with Kirby are simply astounding.
Wisely branded as a Mundruczó and Wéber film (this marks their third collaboration), the two continue on the same wavelength. Wéber infuses the script with anguish, showing the toughest moments a relationship can go through with authenticity. The pain ripples throughout the family, crippling everyone. Until the last act, the script avoids melodrama, even if it engages in some common tropes.
Mundruczó adds his own flourishes, adding extended shots and sequences when necessary to amp up the tension. The one-shot that depicts a birth in real-time lasts nearly thirty minutes. The cinematography and choreography of the sequence stun. Even when Pieces of a Woman engages in self-indulgence, there are plenty of grounded character moments to make up for it. Marking his English language debut, Mundruczó hits the mark with his film’s universal themes.
Pieces of a Woman makes for an extremely heartbreaking watch, but it also features some of the very best performances of the year. Few films have the visceral sequences that elevate this one, and even fewer have a performance like Kirby’s. This one will likely fall in the same discussion as Manchester By the Sea, a film so flooded with grief, it becomes difficult to reckon with its darkest moments.