She throws her head back, snarling, yowling, teeth bared. She is giving birth to her daughter, breathing raggedly as she pushes through the pain, a vein convulsing in her neck. When the little girl eventually arrives, she is blue; gulping for air. The mother, clutching her fading newborn in her arms, is seized by a sudden, blood-curdling panic...
This is the traumatic prologue of Pieces of a Woman: one long, uninterrupted take of a home birth gone unthinkably wrong. It is a knuckle-clenching 30 minutes, almost unbearable in its hyperrealism. Guided through the labour by an inexperienced midwife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) moans and cries while her doting partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) does his best to tend to her.
The single-shot scene – in which the camera snakes around the pair’s Boston apartment, pushing in and drawing back from the actors – is an inspired directorial choice from Kornel Mundruczo. The technique is typically associated with stories of epic proportions (consider the Dunkirk sequence in Atonement or, more recently, the World War I drama 1917), so to use the device within a contained domestic setting invests the scene with large-scale importance. In its sensitive depiction of stillbirth, Pieces of a Woman takes a subject often hushed-up and consigned to the background, and places it at the forefront of the narrative. The movie presents, with shattering resonance, the tragic aftermath of what should have been the happiest day of any expectant couple’s life.
Following the death of their child, Martha and Sean’s relationship buckles under the intolerable weight of grief. Loss is an unspoken participant in their every conversation. They both seek solace in other lovers but find only cold comfort. Kirby delivers an astounding turn in her first lead film role, for which she was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at this year’s Venice Film Festival. She shuts down and retreats inward, encasing herself in a hard exterior of emotional distance to stop anything else from hurting her. Kirby plays Martha as a clenched fist of a woman: she keeps her arms rigidly at her sides when pulled into unwanted hugs by acquaintances of her mother (an overbearing Ellen Burstyn); she sternly ejects the man hired as her maternity cover from her desk.
During the baby’s autopsy, her wide-open stare is so vacant it’s like you’re watching her have an out-of-body experience. Her greatest strength as an actress is knowing how to hold the space, sitting in the silence and letting the character’s bottomless agony appear on her face increment by increment. Martha’s guarded brittleness clashes with the volatility of her partner. Sean is a tornado of grief, swallowing up everything in his wake (and breaking his hard-earned sobriety in the process). These conflicting reactions to the stillbirth illustrate how the ghastliness of this situation has eroded the very foundations of the characters’ once strong partnership.
Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography also traces the growing estrangement between Martha and Sean through beautifully framed shots of their hands. In the birth scene, there are several tactile close-ups of Martha’s outstretched palm reaching for Sean’s: we see their fingers knotted together and, later, his thumb stroking her back. Post-mortem, he touches her leg and she recoils, all previous tenderness dissolved. They don’t hold hands again but the imagery continues, instead showing Martha’s lone hand brushing the snow on her windowpane, her fingers stubbing out a cigarette. It is an undeniably powerful reminder that loss can engender further loss, and in this case has hollowed out two people to the extent that they no longer recognise each other.
Pieces of a Woman never quite recaptures the eviscerating brilliance of its opening sequence, and sadly lurches off course into clichéd melodrama by the end. It’s a shame that the film feels the need to pile on a court-case inquisition because, in widening its scope, it loses sight of what works best, namely the story’s painfully honest intimacy. The movie doesn’t reach its full potential, but that’s not to say it is without merit. Pieces of a Woman details the isolating experience of losing a baby and reveals how mothers can crumble under the burden of social expectation. It is upsetting, harrowing even, but the film uses compassion and care to draw attention to a marginalised issue, and for that it should ultimately be praised.
‘Pieces of a Woman’ is released in cinemas on 30 December and will be available on Netflix from 7 January.
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