Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writer: Kata Wéber
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook
Streaming on: Netflix
The opening act of Pieces of a Woman features an astonishing 23-minute-long take of a young couple on the throes of parenthood. A heavily pregnant Martha (Vanessa Kirby) goes into labour. Her water breaks. Her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) calls the midwife Eva (Molly Parker). Together, they prepare for a traditional home birth. The camera strives to imitate life, the humans strive to create life. Things don't go as planned. The rest of the film is rooted in the debris and devastation of this moment. Spirits disintegrate. Lovers fall to pieces. A private ordeal turns into a public spectacle. All it took was 23 minutes.
Most films punctuate their prelude with the privilege of time to earn the resonance of an aftermath. We often see happy couples and expectant parents and splendid love stories leading up to a tragedy so that the subsequent grieving finds context – and identity. The idea is to reveal the heart so that we recognize the sound of its breaking. The idea is to reveal the high stakes. What this single take does, though, is burn the idea at a cinematic stake. Its 23 real-time minutes of agony and relief and exhilaration and crisis conceal within them the equations of a lifetime. Instead of verbalizing the history of love, it exposes the immediacy of companionship.
As the process moves from the kitchen to the living room to the bathroom to the bedroom, you begin to sense who these two are. You get a mental picture of where they come from. You see that Martha and Sean make for an unlikely couple. You notice their differences. He's blue-collar in his panic, she's white-collar in her pain. You suspect the idealism of a home-birth is a repercussion of their union. You suspect that they battled to be together. He distracts her by making her laugh, she deliriously comments on his ruggedly good looks. Theirs is a mercurial marriage of bodies, not minds. And you fear for them – once the music stops, what is left? Once the spell is broken, will they just be two strangers drowned by the memory of soulmates?
None of this is shown through exposition. There are no flashbacks or time-lapse montages. It's just there. It's there in the way they giggle and touch. It's there in the way they curse. It's there in the way the camera, too, doesn't focus on the speaker. Often, it simply rests on the face of the listener, resisting the urge to pan and follow the voices. It refuses to distinguish between giver and receiver. One reading of this is that the couple isn't used to the rhythm of conversation; it's almost never about what a voice is saying. It's almost always about interpreting, rather than understanding, the partner. But a better way to read this is in context of the film that follows. Grieving is a silent act of faith but also a deafening reaction to fate – the bereaved are often at the mercy of gestures that fail to fathom their void. For Martha and Sean it's a fiercely personal feeling that, like their conversation, cannot be shared on equal ground. Their invisible past falls on the deaf ears of a future.
This art of concealment is also reflected in the film's choice of tragedy. Grief is an emotional vacuum – a consequence of the mind unable to process the suddenness of life ceasing to exist more than the absolution of death itself. The dying is difficult because of the living that precedes it. But the grief of parents who lose a newborn defies definition: it comes from the primal proximity of birth and death, not the narrative proximity of life and death. They don't mourn the end so much as the end of a beginning. They don't miss a child so much as the promise of parenthood. They don't lose what is as much as what might have been. The baby appears in their life as fleetingly as their relationship is established on screen. Yet, their crippling sense of failure is supplemented by the ambiguity of this grief. Neither of them is sure why it hurts. Neither of them is sure of how they are supposed to feel. The investment doesn't match up to the returns. Martha retreats into a cold, clinical shell to compensate for the personal pain of childbirth. Sean explodes into a hot, soppy mess to compensate for the borrowed pain of childbirth. The contrast in their roots becomes stark. The method of their coping mechanism parts ways.
Vanessa Kirby, the gifted English actress best known as young Princess Margaret in The Crown, possesses the rare talent of being able to lend volatility the tenderness of errant vitality. She has a face that can turn paupers into painters, yet her rendition of Martha staddles the fragile bridge connecting pitch-perfect to picture-perfect. She seems to be well aware that the rest of her performance, like the rest of the film and her character's life, is destined to be measured against those 23 riveting minutes. On the other hand, Shia LaBeouf's Sean is a little scary for how much of it is infused with the actor's own unhinged celebrity. Even if I wasn't aware of the recent allegations of abuse against LaBeouf, it's easy to imagine him as someone who derives art out of toxicity. His will always be a troubled legacy and a deeply controversial presence on screen: a trait that inadvertently informs the diminishing dynamic between Sean and Martha. The reason I'm reluctant to touch upon the external factors in this film – like Ellen Burstyn's powerful turn as Martha's domineering mother, or the criminal trial of the midwife – is because I believe this to be, at its core, a relationship story. There are two voices in it, even if the lens focuses on just the listener.
In many ways, Pieces of a Woman is a spiritual sibling to the recent Riz Ahmed starrer, Sound of Metal. An infant's death here, much like a drummer's deafness in Sound of Metal, is the cruel ruse for the awakening of life. In both films, the male partner is hinted to be a drifter whose relationship has rescued him from substance addiction. In both films, the female partner is hinted to be an upper-class girl rebelling against a single parent. Shacking up with the boorish slumdog is a phase for her, but one that's taking too long to pass.
The film itself believes otherwise. It uses clumsy metaphors – the recurrence of apples (forbidden fruit), the colour red, the construction of a Bostonian bridge, a winter-to-spring succession, a fractured family bond, lingering shots of children – to cement the individualism of lost motherhood. Not to mention "Martha," a name immortalized by pop culture as none other than Superman's mother. The camera follows Martha in pursuit of a classic closure arc, but breaking free is seldom an isolated monologue: it often implies the demise of dialogue. In many ways, Pieces of a Woman is a spiritual sibling to the recent Riz Ahmed starrer, Sound of Metal. An infant's death here, much like a drummer's deafness in Sound of Metal, is the cruel ruse for the awakening of life. In both films, the male partner is hinted to be a drifter whose relationship has rescued him from substance addiction. In both films, the female partner is hinted to be an upper-class girl rebelling against a single parent. Shacking up with the boorish slumdog is a phase for her, but one that's taking too long to pass.
The only difference is spelled out by the titles: While Sound of Metal unfurls from the audible perspective of the man, this film reveals the soundless viewpoint of a woman. Getting pregnant is perhaps Martha's last-ditch attempt to extend her phase and force her relationship into adulthood – an unlikely couple's last resort to become likely. Maybe she hopes Sean will grow up, maybe she is willing herself to justify the headiness of their story. As a result, Martha's inner space replicates the silent gravity of outer space. She floats through the ordeal till her pieces – as well as her illusion of peace – can't be heard anymore. After all, the harder two hearts are torn apart by trauma, the more they are inextricably linked by it. Tragedy is nothing but its own zero-sum game.