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Pieces of a Woman Review: Vanessa’s Kirby’s fierce conviction can’t rescue this soapy, haphazard and glib reading of loss.

Debanjan Dhar

The prologue of Pieces of a Woman — a prolonged one take, that spills over thirty minutes, unfolds in the cinema verite tradition. Kornel Mundruczo pushes the camera to a nearly suffocating point of proximity to the crisis the woman at the centre of the film is undergoing. Martha’s labour pain is conveyed to the viewer in punishingly intense detail. A series of grunts and belches and bellows and huffs, performed in awe inducing minuteness of expression by Vanessa Kirby interpolate the auditory composition of the unbroken sequence. Martha’s husband Sean cracks be Dad jokes to cheer her up and a replacement midwife , Eva, arrives , adequately warm and sufficiently glowing in her endearments to Martha. Molly Parker’s inherent softness of disposition is instantly convincing, and the entire process of birth giving is tracked almost methodically, beat by beat, from extreme agony to relief to the sheer blossoming of love that washes over Martha’s face as she holds her baby. The fleeting of intimate association lingers over the film, rippling across the various characters’ lives in the manifestation of what could have been, the loss engendered by the eventual miscarriage.

The loss jolts the couple widely apart, violently rupturing the relationship the husband and wife share. The drifting apart happens not over a gradual period but a near immediate repercussion of the fatal episode. Martha becomes withdrawn into her innermost recesses, impassive and stubbornly aloof. Sean looks for some mutual sliver of solace. Defeated, at one point , he even tried to coerce her into sex which she staunchly resists. These lead into his falling back on his old addiction issues, and an illicit angle with a lawyer who represents the couple in their civil suit against the midwife.

There is a subtle ache in her gaze when she looks at or watches kids with their parents on the subway, or at the departmental store. But director Kornel isn’t content to just let this unrealised yearning and the deep seated ramifications of trauma be the primary fulcrum of the narrative. He bungs in dementia, Holocaust survivorship, the resentments that run through families, the difficulties of a recovering addict, and the complexity of Martha’s mother who’s not the prototypical ideal comfort couch mother; she might seem calculating and downright manipulative in places.

The problem is Kata Weber’s writing doesn’t rise to the challenge posed by these several tangents the team is interested in tackling. The dialogue gets almost confoundingly pointless frequently, incapable of adding any dramatic weight of articulation to the various quandaries the characters are trapped in. There are these verbose scenes of a family gathering where the people chat at length about The Strokes, and the poor dialogue severely diminishes any actual semblance of convivial conversation that characterises such gatherings. The toggling between the various subplots is conspicuously clumsy and the peripheral narrative angles only serve to detract from the infinitely more watchable potential of Martha’s coping with her tragedy. They strain terribly on the central conceit, though I get the intention of the director and writer to portray the far reaching effects of such a circumstance. Sean himself spells it out, equating it to a resonance, a concept from his vocation as a bridge construction worker, a sort of vibration that can bring an entire house down.

The symbolisms are too overt and heavy handed be it the apple that Martha constantly nibbles or the bridge that Sean is close to finishing building while destroying the emotional bridges in his own life. The characters too have little depth, and the observation of trauma strikes the viewer as specious, and you don’t really gain a textured understanding of Martha’s inner reality. She is mostly always stolid, inaccessible behind an impenetrable veneer of opacity and unexpressed emotions. Kornel’s direction is impatient and jagged and unfocused, which is why Kirby is frequently impeded from portraying a much varied processing of her situation. You want to stay by her side but Kornel yanks attention away to some other angle. Her conviction and commitment is complete but the narrative enquiry into her mental spaces are staggeringly vacuous. There are some inexplicably silly shots of throat muscles quavering or backsides of neck and closeups of the eyes in the courtroom scene, designed to little effect whatsoever. Ellen Burstyn channels all her singular ferocity in a three minute monologue as exhorts her daughter to move on, citing an episode from her own past.

Howard Shore’s music is tailored to aid the melodrama on display, and there are some genuinely bafflingly fatuous manipulative background use purposefully nudging at our heartstrings. Unfortunately, you sense the effort of being emotionally wheedled. Though there’s an lovely apposite bit when Martha and Sean share an intimate caress and look in the bathtub right before her delivery.

Societal projections towards Martha are also something that Kornel desperately attempts to rail against, explicitly enumerated in multiple scenes but the insight is ill-founded.

Everyone, the sister or her mother or her acquaintances, desires Martha to act or mourn in a certain way which she refuses to adhere to.

For all its empathy, the perspective towards a woman dealing with the damaging emotional and physical toll of a miscarriage someone doesn’t develop to any degree of intelligent , nuanced commentary. We don’t really get to inhabit the frayed ties and her psychological terrain. All of it winds towards a courtroom scene that doesn’t earn any emotional gravitas it aspires for, and the final moments are especially at odds with the tonality the film had previously been poised in.

Had Kata Weber not zoomed out from a character study to give a wider look ,perhaps the film would have retained some of its initial scabrous intimacy. Ultimately ,however Pieces of a Woman morphs into an erratic, garbled mess and all the jumbled energies of the many plot angles turn out to be largely ineffectual.

You can watch Pieces of A Woman on Netflix.

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Alternate Take presents a new pitstop for fresh , unbiased and hopefully perceptive thoughts on cinema. We are trying to create and build a community of critics , and sustain a exchange and dialogue between established, prominent critics and aspiring young critics.

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