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Lift your head and fight for yourself, for God's sakes! Go out there and face that woman.

Pieces of a Woman 
(2020)

(SPOILERS) Convincing suffering is a tried-and-tested way to win Oscar attention, if not necessarily to win the Oscar. You have to be careful not to overdo it. Don’t seem too eager for that statuette, or perform too shamelessly en route. Pieces of a Woman had Oscar portents in its favour owing to a half-hour opening section that sets a mood of virtuous realism and honesty in its treatment of expectation for and subsequent loss of a child, so providing the necessary “authentic” backbone once the more Hollywood flourishes, those really designed to grab the voters’ votes, set in.

I should be fair minded to director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, who based Pieces of a Woman on their play and evidently approached the project from their own experiences of loss and grieving. Raw experiences don’t always make for the most effective dramatisations, however, particularly once they have been fed through the meat grinder of invention and artifice required by the typical movie. The opening single-take section follows the homebirth of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) as assisted by midwife Eva (Molly Parker). It’s this that represents the picture’s major talking point, dedicated to mapping out the events that lead to the baby being pronounced dead. The sequence is scrupulously diligent. Albeit, I’m less convinced of its merit as a piece of drama, which only reveals itself in the final few minutes.

Nevertheless, it has set the critics wowing and ah-ing as intended, so the rest of the movie is able to lapse into something more familiar and characteristic of character-driven indie fare. Martha and Sean become distanced from each other, the former withdrawing and the latter taking up his drug regimen again (ideal for LaBoeuf). Meanwhile, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) throws her matriarchal weight around, pressing for Eva’s prosecution. Burstyn at least brings some firepower to the material, but she’s unable to overcome the problem that every wheel set in motion after the opening is a predictable one, so serving to undercut its “statement” that this would avoid easy options and subplots. Why, not only does Sean resume his habit, but he also starts banging the prosecuting attorney (Sarah Snook)! And then, Elizabeth pays him off to leave for Seattle.

I have to admit, I never believe LaBoeuf is a real person. In anything. This isn’t because he’s unable to sustain his roles dramatically, but rather because he brings an insurmountable amount of baggage to anything he plays. He’s the dingbat who wants to be a De Niro. Obviously, De Niro is also a dingbat, but… At any rate, the more Sean behaves like an asshole, the more believable LaBoeuf is as Sean, but you’re never less than achingly conscious of his suffocating method posturing.

Kirby’s good, but is she Best Actress Oscar good? Well, she definitely gets my vote over Viola Davis’ prize ham. Kirby’s is a frequently interior performance, set off by several grandstanding moments, and she sustains both extremes with due conviction. Rather undone by the contrived courtroom finale, though (yes, Pieces of a Woman remembers it needs a dramatic showdown at the end, even though we’ve had barely a whiff of Eva in the meantime). There are some interesting but overcooked attempts to reflect the subjectivity of that night’s experiences, before Martha stops off to look at photos taken during the birth; she returns to the courtroom newly determined, and in an “I’m going to allow this” moment worthy of Glab in Futurama, the judge lets her deliver an impassioned (Oscar-worthy) exoneration of any intentional malpractice on Eva’s part.

There’s a slightly pat undercurrent in respect of her relationship with Elizabeth here too, since it is Elizabeth who has pressed that Martha should “Go out there and face that woman” in court (having already asserted that, if Martha had done things her mother’s way – had a hospital birth – the baby would still be alive, leading to a “This is how we get Burstyn to sign on” speech concerning her poor mother’s experiences). Martha duly shows herself in court, and if she doesn’t do things Elizabeth’s way, it’s nevertheless evident that her way of “facing that woman” has earned her mom’s respect.

I’m not entirely convinced the interrogation of midwifery here – what there is of it – is as fair minded as the makers would probably like to think. It is, after all, focussing on a homebirth that ends in bereavement, so it is loaded as a warning and cautionary to any prospective mother who might assume avoiding hospitals is preferable. Better not to chance calling that ambulance at all, right? Elizabeth also objects to Elizabeth’s plans to donate her baby’s body to science; if the makers don’t come out and say it, then implicitly, since Elizabeth is against it, it must be a good thing. I’m sure Mundruczó and Wéber would get the Rockefeller Founation seal of approval for their fine work here.

Burstyn expectedly slam dunks it. Snook plays someone a bit above it all, so par for the course for her. Likewise, Benny Safdie essays someone irritating. Howard Shore overdoes the emotive cues. Pieces of a Woman is one of those actor-friendly vehicles unlikely to gain much traction, even if by some unlikely chance Kirby walks away with the honours on Oscar night (see also Judy, Still Alice, Blue Jasmine, The Reader and most famously – or not – Blue Sky). For all its attempts at honesty, it’s that bit too calculated, yet not calculated enough to achieve truly across-the-board favour.


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