Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Powerful acting in an uneven movie

    Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's White God stands as one of the most riveting movies of 2014, a political allegory that made you gasp and left you wondering how its many scenes with dogs had been filmed
    A drama of shocking immediacy, Mundruczo's Pieces of a Woman marks the director's English-language debut and provides an opportunity for Vanessa Kirby to give one of the year's most emotionally naked performances.
     Familiar for having played Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby portrays Martha, a young woman who loses her baby during a home birth. The 23-minute scene in which Martha goes into labor was recorded by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb in a single agonizing shot. 
     Kirby's character, the baby's father (Shia LaBeouf), and a midwife (Molly Parker) are all caught up in a fraught, anxious moment. Taking place before the opening credits, the scene sets a high bar of intensity that the movie will have trouble topping. 
     Before the birth sequence, Mundruczo sketches the relationship between Martha and LaBeouf's Sean. He works in construction; she works in an office. He's a brusk jokey guy who knows that Martha's mother (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter can do better.
    Clearly psyched about becoming a father, Sean's bustling energies and his sympathetic behavior during the protracted labor sequence keep us from dismissing him as entirely "boorish," a term he later uses sardonically in describing himself to Martha's mother.
     Martha, however, turns out to be the movie's driving force. Sean spins like a helpless wheel around Martha's increasingly distant behavior. At one point, he forces himself on her sexually, another scene that has generated much discussion.
    On one level, Pieces of a Woman deals with relationships, family, and grief. On another level, it's about acting, the way actors navigate heavy emotional waters, leaving themselves exposed as they deep dive into what feels like unprotected waters.
     But that doesn't mean that Pieces of a Woman succeeds as a drama. An uncompleted bridge becomes one of Mundruczo's several visual symbols, along with apple seeds. Whatever Mundruczo intended to convey with these visual metaphors feel labored. The movie's at its best when it's being literal and physical rather than symbolic.
    Another current animates the story. Burstyn's character wants her daughter to press charges against the midwife. Martha resists, opening the door for Burstyn to deliver a short monologue about having been a Holocaust baby. She follows by making an offer to Sean, which I didn't buy -- not on either side of the transaction.
         Anyone who ever has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the death of an infant during childbirth probably should think twice before seeing a movie that may strike them as too realistic, too evocative of a terribly painful experience.
    Those who approach the movie on a more neutral footing will find  a performance in which Kirby establishes herself as a master of mood and self-containment. It's as if she's in one movie and everyone else in another, which makes sense because Martha travels through the story in a state of extreme alienation. She's separated from everyone by an experience that can't be rationalized or even explained.
    Pieces of a Woman stands as a collection of scenes -- some quite powerful -- that demand a lot from its cast without ever totally cohering for us.

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