Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
With mixed results, two distaff dramas explore the aftereffects of grief and trauma
Here’s a name likely to pique the interest of just about anyone these days: Vanessa Kirby. The erstwhile star of The Crown, whose post–royal work has so far consisted of highly physical turns in the Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious franchises, returns to Netflix today with Pieces of a Woman — and is in the middle of what profile-writers tend to deem “a moment.”
It’s well earned. Kirby is superlative in Kornél Mundruczó’s drama, which won her the Venice Film Festival's Volpi Cup for Best Actress and is sure to be the subject of many a For Your Consideration billboard in the coming months. Since it's impossible to talk about either her performance or the movie itself without revealing what happens in the first act, I won't try: Kirby plays a mother-to-be named Martha whose baby dies minutes after being born, unraveling her life in devastating fashion.
That sequence, which lasts some 20 minutes and is made to appear like a single uninterrupted shot, is a masterclass unto itself — the kind of thing you won't be able to forget even if you want to, which is likely given how excruciating it is. Roger Ebert famously described movies as “a machine that generates empathy,” and scenes like this show how right he was: you'll be incapable of thinking of Martha as anything but a close friend who suffered an unfathomable tragedy for Pieces of a Woman’s remainder.
Mundruczó previously directed White God, a film about a group of stray dogs rising up against their bipedal oppressors — imagine my disappointment when it wasn't good. Pieces of a Woman, which functions as a rawer (and, frankly, better) version of Marriage Story, is less gimmicky and more accomplished.
It’s also a victim of its own success. Like its heroine, Pieces of a Woman can't help but feel directionless after its first-act climax — there's no instruction manual for dealing with this kind of loss, and apparently there isn't one for making a movie about it either.
“They put themselves in danger, girls like that,” says one of the ill-fated men who will soon fall prey to Cassie (Carey Mulligan) in Promising Young Woman. He’s speaking about women who get drunk in public and, according to his logic, allow themselves to be taken advantage of — or worse. Emerald Fennell’s film flips that particular script, as Cassie is only feigning inebriation in order to get her unwitting victims to let their guard down: “Every week I go to a club,” she says, “and every week I act like I'm too drunk too stand, and every fucking week a nice guy like you comes over to see if I'm okay.” Spoiler: they don’t care if she’s okay.
What this spider does to the flies she lures into her web shan’t be revealed here, but suffice to say that it makes for satisfying viewing. The next morning, after staring down a few cat-callers on her way home, Cassie makes a tally mark in her notebook — the most recent of what look to be at least a hundred. Ms. 45 this is not, but the spirit of righteous vengeance lives in it just as strongly.
Mulligan shares much of her screentime with Bo Burnham, the comedian who directed 2018’s exemplary Eighth Grade, here playing what seems to be the only gentleman in town. You like the two of them together immediately, almost enough to wish that Promising Young Woman had instead been a rom-com, but Fennell is skilled enough to have it both ways: one scene finds them dancing in a pharmacy while he lip syncs Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” the next shows her mercilessly righting a wrong that occurred years earlier.
Cassie doesn’t do any of this for fun, of course, and the trauma that compels her is no less wrenching than what we see in Pieces of A Woman, but Fennell is ultimately more successful than Mundruczó in showing how herculean a task it is to turn grief’s aftereffects into anything positive. It helps that Mulligan’s performance is just as magnetic as Kirby’s, and it wasn’t until watching the movie that I realized how selective she is in choosing her roles — this is only her eighth film since Drive premiered at Cannes a decade ago. Most of them have been worthwhile, especially Mudbound and Wildlife, but Mulligan has been memorable even in the forgettable ones. Were she a lesser talent, I might even worry that she’ll have trouble topping this one.