In two films I saw today, the protagonist ends up in court, a place for finding the truth and administering justice. In both cases, however, we see how little reason and logic can help us make sense of life’s biggest mysteries or right its greatest wrongs.
In Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s (WHITE GOD, JUPITER’S MOON) English-language debut PIECES OF A WOMAN, we meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) as they get ready to welcome their first child. Martha comes from money and Sean does not, so there’s some tension in the family, especially when Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is around. But the young couple finds shelter in their genuine love for each other and their future baby. On the night of the home birth, for reasons that may or may not be attributable to the midwife, tragedy strikes and (I don’t think this is a spoiler) the baby dies. Burdened by guilt, shame and inconceivable pain, the relationships between husband and wife, mother and daughter all begin to crumble.
The way Mundruczó tells this story is nothing if not heart-wrenching. To take you through what exactly happened on the fateful night, the director sets aside 30 minutes to film the entire failed home birth in one unbroken take. It’s grueling to watch for sure, but the scene exposes womanhood at its most nakedly vulnerable and makes you appreciate the magnitude of Martha’s loss with visceral, near violent force. After this harrowing, technically dazzling intro, Mundruczó dials down the wow factor several notches to turn the spotlight on the actors, often just their faces in stark, all-revealing close-ups. And his actors, headed by the remarkable trio of Kirby, LaBeouf and Burstyn, did not let him down.
LaBeouf delivers a solid performance as someone who is plagued by insecurities and, as he realizes he’s lost all means to connect with the one person he loves, falls ever deeper into despair. Every bit of his fiery, wounded exasperation is the best yang to Kirby’s yin. In a prominent supporting role with a meaty “Oscar clip” monologue, Burstyn reminds everyone why she’s the legend that she is. Conveying disdain, fury or menace with just her eyes or a slight lilt in her voice, she can be nasty without losing any of Elizabeth’s poise and grace. All the more shocking, then, is her outburst of emotion during the memorable monologue, in which we find out a lot more about her character’s past.
And then there’s Kirby. Guys, believe the hype. This is a performance that scars. Playing a woman who’s completely, unsalvageably hollowed out, Kirby chills you with the absolute stillness of her being. Her character hardly ever cries or raises her voice. You sense that she is so utterly consumed by trauma there isn’t even the strength to break down anymore. When friends and family comfort her, it’s the bloodless placidity in her gaze, her voice that tells you just how far gone she is. When she’s made to relive the memory of losing her child and finally feels something again later in the film (in one courtroom scene in particular, my God that scene), the emotions that surface will mess. you. up.
As a viewer I’m allergic to misery porn and PIECES OF A WOMAN, despite being a strong contender for saddest movie of the year, triggered no reaction. The way the filmmaker and the cast approach the subject feels honest and respectful, never exploitative. Ultimately it’s this purity of intent that makes me think it could become a future classic in its genre.
Then we have French auteur François Ozon’s SUMMER OF 85, a sexy, nostalgic blast of a film that is in some ways less than refined but entirely lovable all the same.
At its center is the shy, thoughtful high-schooler Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) who recently moved to a seaside resort in Normandy with his parents and befriends the outgoing, seductive David (Benjamin Voisin in a charismatic star turn) after a boating accident. The two start a summer romance that will last just six weeks and change both of their lives.
The screenplay, loosely based on Aidan Chambers’ young adult novel DANCE ON MY GRAVE, is a little messy, especially in the needlessly protracted final act. However, what it gets right it gets crushingly right. Both lead characters are created with nuance and care, their desires, doubts and hurt painstakingly mapped out. In the case of David, a confession towards the end of the film reveals a fragility and cruelty to him that feels insightful and brutally honest, while Alexis’ adorably inarticulate attempt at describing his feelings for David proves the most beautifully accurate thing anyone could ever say about being in love. Although using a court case as framing device for the film seems a bit manipulative in retrospect, the point is made that when it comes to matters of the heart, nobody can presume to know anything.
Ozon’s direction captures the sweetness and trepidations of first love with great passion and precision. Even if one can’t look past the flaws of the script or some pacing issues, it’s still pure bliss to jump on this joyous, tragic, unapologetically romantic ride and be carried away by the sun-kissed views and the 80’s soundtrack. I mean, what’s not to love about that?