Pieces of a Woman (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes a baby just… dies and there is no medical explanation for it. “Pieces of a Woman,” based on the stage play by director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, is an examination of what happens when a couple is unable to face this reality and move on from their loss as a unit. They cannot comprehend it. Or don’t want to comprehend it yet because the experience is too raw, too painful, out of their control, insurmountable, and perhaps there is a bit of shame there. Here is a film that asks, “What’s wrong with that?” and moves forward.
Although a story of loss, it does not dictate how a person should grieve; it is uninterested in showing what is right or what is wrong; and it does not bother when to separate order from the chaos for the sake of the next plot development. In a way, everything bleeds together. I felt a freedom in this work that I wished were more prevalent in American films.
Everybody wants to talk about the twenty-three minute, single-take birth scene, how impressive it is technically. What’s funny is that I didn’t even notice until the scene is nearly over because I was so engrossed with what was happening: Martha (Vanessa Kirby) going into labor at home while her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), telephones Barbara, their midwife. It turns out that Barbara is helping with another labor and thus unable to make it. And so a back-up midwife named Eva (Molly Parker) is sent in her place. Blame will be placed on Eva for the death of the infant.
Because Eva is not the couple’s first choice, the scene becomes an examination. I found myself watching like a hawk, noting every single thing—right and wrong—that may possibly lead to the death of Martha and Sean’s daughter. Tension-filled right from the moment Martha announces she is feeling intense contractions, the work does not bother to mask its final destination. The intrigue, you see, is in the details presented within the single-take, not the fact that the technique is employed or the technical maneuverings themselves. The point is the experience—the terror and beauty of it—and Mundruczó places us right in the middle of the action. We observe, helpless.
What happens after is equally curious, days later and then weeks at a time. Because we are provided mere snapshots of the physical and mental states of Martha and Sean, I found it almost impossible to take sides. Discerning viewers will likely remind themselves that they are not being provided a complete picture. At times it is up to us to fill in the gaps and so we put a bit of ourselves, our experiences, into the work so we could have something more to work with while considering the big picture. As a result, your interpretation of a character will be different from my interpretation of the same character.
Consider: it is clear that the couple is so different from one another, almost polar opposites. On the one hand, Martha comes from a wealthy family (Ellen Burstyn), clearly well-educated and well-connected. On the other, Sean is poor, ill-tempered, a former drug addict, and, in his own words, boorish. We never meet his side of the family. We watch how they cope not only in regard to their child’s death but also when it comes to their withering partnership. Just about every snapshot is an opportunity to observe their defense mechanisms in action.
What I found fresh about this couple is that it comes across as though the director did not bother to capture the performers having or sharing chemistry. I appreciated this laid back approach because if you take a real close look all around you are bound to find more than a few couples who choose to be together even though we, as outsiders, feel they do not have or share chemistry. Or much in common of anything. But the more we observe Martha and Sean, together and apart, we come to appreciate small details that may illuminate why they forged a relationship. But this isn’t to suggest that the screenplay goes easy on either character. I loved that it is more interested in their shortcomings than their triumphs.
Some tools of manipulation are overt: the camera panning over dead or dying plants in the household, a melancholy score that never lets up, a mangy dog making its way through the snow and the character it makes eye contact with is meant to be informative. But because I was able to get into the picture’s unusual rhythm early on, I didn’t mind so much. There is a genuine sadness to this story I was able to connect with on a gut level, and I was always curious as to how Martha might make it out of her silent rage, her crippling depression, her private shame.