Dir: Kornel Mundruczo. Featuring: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn. 15, 126 mins
Pieces of a Woman, the latest Netflix awards hopeful, opens with such fury, such unvarnished intimacy, that you feel trapped – unable to escape or even look away. For 30 excruciating minutes, you watch Martha (Vanessa Kirby) in labour. She’s prepared for this, cycling through every practised routine: the breathing exercises, the birthing ball, the back massages. She’s dutifully attended to by a nervous bundle of energy – her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf, whose erratic, increasingly violent character is uncomfortable to watch in light of the allegations made by his ex FKA twigs and others).
Birth, for Martha, comes like a tidal wave: each contraction unmoors her a little more, as her body communicates a message she can’t seem to translate. The midwife she’d chosen to assist with her home birth isn’t available, and her replacement, Eve (Molly Parker), arrives with a small, placid smile. But the situation continues to unravel. In the scene’s final moments, the silence that comes after a small, ragged breath confirms to us that the worst has happened. Only then does the film’s title card appear on screen.
Pieces of a Woman offers us a vision of childbirth utterly unlike the saintly, selfless depictions to which we’ve become so accustomed. Martha sweats. She cries. She belches. She curses. Kirby groans like a cavewoman bashing her next meal to death, the sounds erupting from somewhere earthy, ancient, and primal. We hear that guttural cry once more in the film. Months have passed since the loss of the baby, and Martha finds herself in confrontation with her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who can’t understand why her daughter won’t share in her grief. Kirby and Burstyn complement each other beautifully; the former is starkly modern in her approach, all physical ticks and unspoken words, while the latter is more classical, funnelling her emotions into a grand, impassioned speech. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb frames Burstyn in the most elegant of close-ups, but captures Kirby from all kinds of strange, disjointed angles.
The film revolves entirely around Kirby’s provocative performance, which won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice Film Festival. She can communicate not just grief but the ways a woman might become detached from it. Martha always acts as if she’s being woken from a stupor. It’s through Kirby’s work that you get a sense of how raw a subject this must be for the film’s creative team, director Kornel Mundruczo and screenwriter Kata Weber – the pair, who are partners in real-life, have alluded to the story having some basis in personal experience. This is their third collaboration, following White God and Jupiter’s Moon, and serves as an adaptation of Weber’s original stage play. It’s also their first in the English language.
White God may have featured an army of stray dogs tearing through the streets of Budapest, but the birth scene here, shot as a single long-take, is by far the most ambitious sequence Mundruczo has ever pulled off. What ultimately undercuts Pieces of a Woman is that neither he, nor Weber, are able to communicate the aftermath of a tragedy in a way that feels as immediate or recognisable. Their characters get wrapped up in strange metaphors involving apples and bridges; Eve is put on trial for negligence, but the sensationalism of the proceedings allow the film to crumble into rote speechifying.
Pieces of a Woman is startling in its depiction of immediate loss, less successful in communicating the void that comes after.