Ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, Pieces of a Woman has become famed for its one-take birth scene that comes near the film’s beginning. After introducing the characters, Boston couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), director Kornél Mundruczó wastes little time in plunging audiences directly into a gruelling home birth sequence, one that last for over 22 unbroken minutes as a new midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), arrives to take control.
After complications during the birth, Martha and Sean’s baby dies shortly after being born. Even viewers were a strong constitution will find this whole sequence a hugely traumatic watch, though Mundruczó (White God) and his screenwriter-wife Kata Wéber don’t put us (and their characters) through such an ordeal without good reason. Pieces… is a film about coping with grief, overcoming it in your own way, and the devastating hole such a loss can leave in your life.
Martha’s well-to-do mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) urges her daughter to take Eva to court, as a way of finding closure for this awful event. A Holocaust survivor, Elizabeth has her own way of coping with trauma, clearly defined by her experiences as a child, but it doesn’t necessarily sit well with Martha. A clash of words between her and her mother is a high point in the film, a powerfully acted sequence that shows why Kirby won Best Actress in Venice and Burstyn is fancied for an Oscar nomination.
Based on a play by Wéber that was originally staged in Warsaw, Pieces… also looks at the corrosive effect that Martha and Sean’s loss has on their marriage. Sean, a construction worker, is clearly considered beneath Martha by her mother, who attempts to oust her son-in-law to give her daughter a fresh start. There is also added frisson between Sean and Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Succession’s Sarah Snook), one of the less successful subplots in the film.
Mundruczó also layers the film with symbolism – notably the building of a bridge that Sean is working on – which turns Pieces… from a social-realist family drama into something more poetic. All the main performers – Kirby, Burstyn, LaBeouf – are excellent, and there is a neat cameo from Benny Safdie, the co-director of Uncut Gems, as Martha’s brother-in-law. Marking a fine English-language debut by Mundruczó and Wéber, this is a film that demands your attention – however difficult a watch it is.
Pieces of a Woman is available on Netflix from 7 January. For more details, click here.