Monday 18 January 2021

On demand: "Pieces of a Woman"

If you've heard one thing by now about Pieces of a Woman, the Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó's English-language debut, it's that the film's opening half-hour hangs heavy over everything that follows. Here is the streaming era's Saving Private Ryan. Unto the breach, then: in a well-furnished apartment in Boston, a young couple watch powerlessly as their carefully scheduled home-birthing arrangements go incrementally awry. It seems ominous, for starters, that the male half of the couple, Sean, should be embodied by a typically bristling Shia LaBeouf; we sense there's only so much comfort and reassurance he can provide to partner Martha (Vanessa Kirby). With their chosen midwife overseeing a difficult labour elsewhere - though surely it wouldn't be this complicated - the pair have been assigned a back-up, Eva (Molly Parker), who appears nurturing and attentive. But - and this is a big but - Eva seems just a fraction too surprised by every development: the accelerating speed of the contractions, the drops of blood Martha leaves behind when she exits the bathtub, the child's ghostly heartbeats, the way the newborn comes out pink but rapidly - dismayingly - turns blue. It's a girl; and thereafter, alas, everybody must revert to the past tense. By the time the title appears on screen at the end of this long, unbroken sequence, formalising the rupture of a life, a heart and a relationship, Mundruczó and his regular screenwriter Kata Wéber have shown exactly why they call it labour. Set against this, reclaiming a heavily fortified beach from the Nazis seems almost a walk in the park. They've also delineated the kind of worst case scenario that should make for great, piercing drama. What if all that labour was finally fruitless?

That question is at once weighty, delicate and tragically common, and I'm not so sure the film comes up with worthy (or even especially convincing) responses. Its remaining ninety minutes are given over to the picking-up of pieces, laid out month by month, carrying us and the characters from the greyest and iciest of winters into the renewal of spring. (And already, you may sense one of the problems here: the symbolism is too obvious. Everything's upfront.) The set-up is fraught with dramatic possibilities: a localised fraying of nerves, leaving everybody bruised and hypersensitive, and Martha in particular unable to turn into a shop or street containing children without wanting to flee in the opposite direction. That feels truthful. But more broadly Pieces needed actors capable of transmitting and amplifying this dreadful lived experience, and instead it runs into an ongoing issue within the contemporary American cinema: it's stuck with a generation of performers who've barely known sacrifice or loss, and thus have very little to draw upon when it comes to recreating those conditions for the purposes of drama. We're watching adult material that's been handed over to kids. For much of Pieces, I found myself wondering whether said material would have found more persuasive expression closer to the filmmakers' own homeland. Maybe it wouldn't, maybe it'd just make it less sexy and saleable - Netflix snapped up this version after it premiered at last year's Venice festival - but a lined and lived-in Eastern European face or two might equally have given the film a gravity this glossier endeavour struck me as sorely lacking in.

Kirby - the movie's big awards hope - is capable enough, but she's acting through a daze for much of the film, and landed with some Heavily Symbolic Business involving apples that is only there to seed an eye-rollingly corny final image. (I put it to those colleagues who've mitigated that this image is the only element that detracts from an overall dramatic severity: nope, it's integral to the design.) LaBeouf, meanwhile, confirms himself as among the most erratic performers currently working; no-one, not even an acclaimed arthouse director, can snap him out of his bullshit. He was very good last year playing different varieties of gruff asshole in The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy; here, he takes a character surely written as a loving man buffeted by misfortune, and plays him as... another gruff asshole. Oddly - and this is a sign of a film with no idea where its own strengths lie - Pieces picks up dramatically once the central relationship is sundered forever, and Mundruczó and Wéber set out to resolve the matter of Parker's midwife, accused of criminal negligence: here, at least, the vague naturalism takes some form, albeit the hackneyed form of the courtroom drama. In the meantime, all that's left on screen are gestures towards profundity, rather than profundity itself: keeping the cameras rolling during an unhappy attempt at make-up sex, and a family dinner to which Sean's mistress (Sarah Snook) just happens to have been invited, getting Ellen Burstyn (as Martha's mother) agitated enough to throw in a Holocaust reference that comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing. In all these cases, the refusal to call cut doesn't generate depth; it merely confirms the film's strange inability to cut deep. (It's as though it stunned itself with that prologue.) Mundruczó and Wéber glide over the surface of an unhappy situation; what Pieces of a Woman finally suggests is Cassavetes redone as affectless content.

Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix.

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