“Pieces of a Woman” managed to fly under the radar all year before bursting onto the global cinema scene at Venice Film Festival in September. The festival ended with film’s star, Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”), taking home the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, and Netflix swooping in to buy the worldwide distribution rights.
The devastating drama – from director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, based on Wéber’s stage play of the same name – follows a couple living in Boston and dealing with the fallout of losing their child. The fateful birthing sequence is already famous, and it does not disappoint. It is a simulated long take that plays out for more than 20 minutes and elicits just about every emotional reaction you can imagine – and all that happens before the title card even appears on screen. It’s one of the greatest scenes of the year, and certainly the greatest scene in a great movie, but “Pieces of a Woman” has much more to offer beyond its first half-hour. It’s an exquisitely-crafted portrait of generational grief, trauma and loss that not only showcases three superb performances, but excellent cinematography from Benjamin Loeb and strong direction from its first frame to its last.
September 17. The film opens with this date superimposed on a shot of a bridge being erected in Boston, and Shia LaBeouf’s Sean leaving the worksite to meet his partner Martha (Kirby) at a car dealership. They’re buying a new minivan to drive their daughter around in, but the vehicle feels totally at odds with Sean’s rough, bearded exterior and Martha’s high-class aesthetic. This clashing of styles is something of an omen of what’s to come, but the chemistry between the two is undeniable. LaBeouf is wholly believable as a gruff sweetheart who spends every day working with his hands, and while Martha is noticeably cut from a different cloth, Kirby keeps the character grounded and relatable.
The birthing sequence that begins the film more than just an opportunity for Mundruczó and company to show off their technical capabilities. The absence of traditional edits keeps us fully engaged with this couple from the beginning of Martha’s contractions to the conclusion of the tragic homebirth. The banter between the two feels real, and Kirby plays the entire process with a naturalism I can’t recall ever seeing on screen during any other cinematic birth. She is writhing, groaning, cursing and even burping, adding some levity to the scene’s first few minutes. Sean holds her close, and she leans over to bite down on his forearm as the contractions continue. The continuous nature of the scene keeps the tension ratcheted to the max, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to start wincing yourself and holding your breath as the birth progresses. Wisely, Loeb maintains a very shallow depth-of-field throughout, keeping Martha and Sean close to the viewer, and the experience is shakingly intimate and even claustrophobic at times.
This whole scene is a sharp counterpoint for the rest of the film – especially the relationship between Martha and Sean. In the wake of losing their daughter, they are simply shells of the human beings we saw during the first 30 minutes of the film. There is no more playful banter, no more jokes or physical intimacy. While they were intensely close and skin-to-skin during the birth, Mundruczó and Loeb often refuse to capture Martha and Sean in the same shot during the last 75% of the film, even if they’re having a conversation in the same room. They yell, cry and drift further and further apart, all while the ends of the bridge from the opening shot grow closer and closer together. As the months pass by, we get new shots of the bridge in October, the snow of December and January, and eventually the sunshine of April as cars finally travel across it. There are beautiful paradoxes in this film, as this relationship comes falling down, other parts of Martha’s life come back together.
Acting legend and Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s mother, Elizabeth. She is from a completely different social class than Sean and it shows, as she voices her disapproval on more than a few occasions. Although it’s never explicitly stated, it’s clear Elizabeth is suffering from some degenerative brain disease, like Alzheimer’s or dementia, as she loses her keys in a bowl in the kitchen or forgets that she ordered a drink at a café. While Martha’s sister Anita (Iliza Shelsinger) has been taking care of Elizabeth and keeping a closer relationship, Martha has been disengaged and detached. Their relationship becomes even more fraught as the two argue over what to do with the remains of Martha’s daughter or whether to testify against the midwife who was charged with manslaughter. The blows between the two women come to a head during the film’s second breathtaking long take, set during a family gathering at Elizabeth’s home. Burstyn delivers one of the most incredible monologues in recent years. It is a moment that will be surely shown as her nominee clip at the Oscars, and it is a scene that Burstyn herself referred to as a moment of “movie magic” during her Netflix Q&A for the film.
“Pieces of a Woman” is a rich, layered picture that is as emotionally taxing as any in recent memory. Gratefully, Mundruczó and Wéber ride the line between truly compelling drama and sheer misery porn. While there is certainly a lot of upsetting and heart-wrenching material on display here, it all feels purposeful and at the service of a story that demands to be heard. Kirby and Burstyn deliver two unforgettable performances that will stick with you well into next year, supported by one of LeBeouf’s best turns to date.
This isn’t just a film with something to say, but something to ask of yourself. It will make you question where your emotions really take you when faced with trauma, just as these characters do. And, while you may be a sobbing mess for most of the runtime, it is all worth it for an ending that is without a doubt the best of the year.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."