Sometimes – not often enough – a movie doesn’t play on a screen in front of you so much as it happens to you. And while I can’t guarantee everyone’s mileage will be the same, from about five minutes in, from its enthrallingly tense beginning through to its unexpectedly transcendent close, while Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber‘s “Pieces of a Woman” was playing out on the screen in front of me, it was also taking up residence deep inside, spreading and growing like the apple seed that Vanessa Kirby‘s shattered character places tenderly in damp cotton to sprout. None of the situations it describes are familiar to me, and the locations and lifestyles it depicts are very far from my own experience, and yet in a quietly momentous way that is extraordinarily fulfilling despite the often devastating turns its story takes, “Pieces of a Woman” happened to me.
Kirby, utterly vivid in the first of her two Venice competition titles (the other being Mona Fastvold‘s “The World To Come,” which premieres tomorrow) plays Martha, whom we meet in a glass-walled modern Boston office, surrounded by smiling colleagues, cake and bright pink “It’s a Girl!” balloons. Martha is heavily pregnant and it’s her last day before maternity leave. Escaping the congratulatory crush – she emits a tiny, instantly endearing “Fuuuck” of relief in the corridor outside – she goes to meet her wealthy mother Elizabeth (a scorching Ellen Burstyn) and her construction-foreman partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) at the car dealership managed by her brother-in-law Chris (Benny Safdie). Elizabeth, a formidable woman who makes no secret of her dislike of Sean, is buying the expectant parents a minivan, which, like presumably every young couple who think they’re too hip for such things, they make fun of – just not to the point of turning it down.
In a few quick scenes, the relationship between Martha and ex-addict Sean is established as deeply loving and synced up despite the class divide, and then the film’s first show-stopper of a sequence begins. Creeping in so cleverly you hardly notice the change in rhythm until you’re deep inside one of DP Benjamin Loeb‘s astonishingly silky unbroken takes, roaming in real time from room to room watching bits of business with Sean or the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) but always eventually returning, as though magnetized, to Martha, we go through labor with her. It’s perhaps the most realistic and tense home-birth scene ever, and Kirby’s performance is brilliant in its lived-in detail, from the burps and retches, to the groans and curses and embarrassed apologies, cycling through abject terror and an almost drugged-up, baffled wooziness and occasionally landing a moment of brimming happiness, like when Martha, between contractions, is sitting in a hastily-drawn bath and leans her head against Sean’s while the music he’s put on in the living room laps around them like water. There is intense, tectonic joy, and then sudden, agonizing devastation, and that’s when the film’s title appears, serving as a helpful reminder to breathe.
The rest of the film is organized in chapters spaced apart in the months following the tragedy. They track the disintegrating relationship between Martha and a relapsing Sean, the strange moments of synergy that happen between Sean and Elizabeth, who find to their mutual surprise they have some common ground. And they build first to an incredibly fraught dinner scene at Elizabeth’s house (at which is also present Martha’s lawyer cousin, played by Sarah Snook, and her sister Anita, played by Iliza Shlesinger) when Burstyn delivers an extraordinary monologue that ranges from manipulative to revealing to cajoling to cruel all in one tight, unbroken close-up. And finally they bring us to a courtroom scene – remarkable for the simplicity and dressed-down nature of its presentation – that concludes the prosecution proceedings that have been buzzing in the background like low-level radiation since the night of the birth.
Throughout all those incidents and interactions, the film is primarily concerned with Martha, with her withdrawal from the world, with her pent-up directionless rage, her guilt, her helplessness and with the extremely ordinary ways she tries to process a grief so large it blots out the sun and throws everyone around into a kind of defocused blur. It’s truly unusual to find a film – at least since the days of John Cassavetes‘ partnership with Gena Rowlands – with this much quiet confidence that the minute observation of a remarkable yet ordinary woman’s state of mind is story enough for a feature film. But Wéber’s writing and Kirby’s performance, working in concert with Mundruczó’s dazzling, multifaceted direction, Howard Shore‘s gorgeously mood-appropriate score and, again, Loeb’s drifting, searching, soulful camera together create, from so many disparate pieces, an entirely complete portrait, that even suggests further internal universes still to be explored, universes every one of us contains.
There are moments that in any other film might seem contrived, or at least overly swollen with symbolism – the aforementioned apple seeds, the smashing of a picture frame, the misspelling of a name, the last-minute trip to the photo store. But here they’re knitted seamlessly in with the everyday, mundane facts of life, of washing up and going for a run, of post-pregnancy diapers and idle arguments about the White Stripes, so that it doesn’t feel like they are contrivances at all. And perhaps the most radical thing: these little scenes build as a slow accretion to Martha’s final act, which is of such grace and goodness that it may, if you’re like me, make you a little dizzy with joy (why is it we assume that stories of any depth must necessarily end on a down beat?). “Pieces of a Woman” dares to end in optimism, even in the aftermath of despair, because it understands how jealously we guard and nurture our grief when it feels like the only piece we have left of someone we loved. But equally it understands that sometimes, with borderline miraculous suddenness, when the sand in some invisible internal hourglass has finally run out, the grief itself will tell us that it’s time to let it go. [A]