In a 24-minute single take, a stylish blond named Martha (Vanessa Kirby) delivers a baby. She grunts, squats, sweats, curses, rendering this most womanly of labors intensely unfeminine. The handheld camera swerves to and fro, roving voyeuristically throughout the hall that links the rooms of a Boston townhouse. Her slate nails grip the rim of a claw-foot tub; her bearded partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), nervously caresses her face. The music of Sigur Rós swells in the background, then fades when midwife Eva (Molly Parker) returns to urge Martha to push. From her soft-lit bedroom the woman wails, Icelandic post-rock drowned out by newborn cries soon followed by eerie quiet.
From its September debut at the Venice Film Festival, Pieces of a Woman has been pegged as easy Oscar fodder for its daring, virtuosic account of a home birth that ends in tragedy. Directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó and written by his partner, Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman is their first English-language feature and the first to be set in the United States. Known for gritty subjects and dazzling visuals, Mundruczó drew international acclaim with White God (2014), a drama about an abandoned mutt turned brutal fighter, which culminates in an epic scene of stray dogs storming the bridges and streets of Budapest. What seemed the effects of CGI was achieved with hundreds of breathing, barking, marvelously choreographed mixed-breed canines. Not to be outdone by this past feat, the director shifted his ambitions in Pieces of a Woman from the spectacularly public to the unnervingly personal.
To some, the switch from dog-fighting to baby-birthing might surprise. It shouldn’t, of course; the latter is just as primal and often even grislier. That Mundruczó’s lens doesn’t shy from this fact is itself worthy of admiration, especially given the dearth of films that honestly tackle the trauma of childbirth, let alone the loss of a pregnancy or death of an infant. Skim through “Movies About the Loss of a Child” and you’ll find fare about freak accidents on vacation, toddlers in traffic, and winsome murdered daughters galore. The much more common experiences of miscarriage and stillbirth lack sensational — and paternalistic — pull, and the extent to which they orbit specifically female experience is likely another reason that they are almost never the narrative focus of a serious prestige film.
Inspired in part by her own miscarriage, Wéber originally wrote a successful play of the same name for the TR Warszawa theater in Warsaw, Poland, its story compressed into two heavy-hitting acts: the delivery and death of a daughter in the first and a tumultuous dinner with Martha’s family in the second. As a veteran stage actor, Kirby was a natural choice for the lead in the screen adaptation and deserves any nomination that might be handed her way — as much for her bracing depiction of mundane grief as for her feral performance of giving birth. Heading back to the office to face her mealy-mouthed coworkers, hiding her leaking breasts from a little girl gawking in a clothing boutique, using a public restroom in disposable maternity briefs that mock her very existence: the vagaries of post-loss life are a triathlon of suffering. Martha responds with a tenacious detachment as disturbing as it is plausible: “In 60, 70 percent of these cases, we rarely find a satisfactory explanation,” the medical examiner tells her. “I’m very sorry.” Martha rises with a stiff “Thank you.”
From there, it seems that the film will unfold as a grueling character and relationship study of Martha and Sean in their adverse methods of grieving their daughter. As Sean rocks in a chair, a silent Martha holds two bags of frozen veggies to numb her breasts. “I miss her,” Sean sobs, his head in his hardened hands as he begs Martha not to donate their baby’s body to science. “Promise me you won’t send her anywhere.”
Against such wrenching, realistic exchanges, viewers could be forgiven for missing the maudlin subplot that starts to take over. Sean is being pressured by Martha’s mother, Holocaust survivor Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), to file a civil suit against the midwife for ostensive malpractice. What could be a compelling portrait of masculine vulnerability soon kowtows to caricature; depictions of tenable domestic dysfunction devolve into stereotypes. Sean goes back to the bottle and swaps working-class swagger for boorish aggression (uncanny given the recent assault allegations against LaBeouf); Elizabeth turns into a cliché of a tyrannical, hyper-materialistic Jewish mother, bribing Sean to ditch her daughter and “make sure she knows you are never coming back.”
As such, Pieces falls to pieces. What began as a trenchant exploration of losing a child becomes a Lifetime-esque affair that strays so sharply from Martha’s grief that it feels a bit like a betrayal. Mundruczó and Wéber would have been wise to stick to the stripped-down narrative of their hit play: the heart of the film is a mother’s pain after the heart of her daughter has terribly stopped; all the courtroom drama that subsumes the film’s latter half feels like soap-opera fare by comparison. That the legal battle it depicts is based upon a real-life case against a midwife in Hungary makes no difference; the thrill, and gratifying closure, of any courtroom sequence is learning, bit by bit, what really happened. In Pieces of a Woman, not only have viewers already witnessed what happened, but we have witnessed it in an unremitting 24-minute shot. We have seen and heard everything and have no doubt that the Eva, herself a mother, was inculpable. The trial comes across as a good mommy versus bad mommy travesty in light of the personal trial that Martha braves.
“There might be a reason for what happened, but we are not going to find it here in this room,” Martha declares in a courtroom monologue that seems straight out of Law & Order. We are also not going to find the reason in Pieces of a Woman, nor should we want to. Lingering on the details of maternal loss — and the messy process of healing — would be more than enough to carry the film.
Pieces of a Woman is currently streaming on Netflix.