Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writer: Kata Wéber
For the first half-hour of Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman,” my husband and I were nervous wrecks, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It was the opposite of “Netflix and chill,” more like “Netflix and re-live traumatic experiences.” During the movie’s extended prologue, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf play Martha and Sean, a young couple in the midst of a home birth, with Kirby convincingly going through labor, not just the terrified/ecstatic screams we’re used to seeing dramatized on screen, but the uncertain and confusing middle stages of labor, when unexpected physical sensations and emotions begin to arise. The entire birth sequence is shot in one unbroken take, which heightens the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, especially as things begin to go wrong.
I won’t spoil exactly how and when the birth becomes tragic, but the rest of the movie is devoted to its aftermath. The movie tries to pay attention to multiple aspects of Martha and Sean’s grief: not only the emotional fallout, but the logistical tasks and medical appointments, Martha’s return to work, Sean’s efforts to stay sober and employed, and the potential legal proceedings as the family debates whether or not to sue for malpractice. It’s a lot, and there were times when I felt the characters had to make unlikely speeches in order to justify the action of the screenplay. Things that should have been subtext were text and vice versa. Most of the time, though, the characters don’t say enough. LeBeouf gives a particularly repellent and overly macho performance, playing the stereotypical inarticulate guy who can’t express his feelings. Kirby is more believable as a woman who is in such physical and emotional turmoil that she’s gone into survival mode and doesn’t have the energy to speak.
For me, the central problem in this movie was the relationship between Martha and Sean. I just didn’t understand why they were together, mainly because they weren’t well-defined as characters. The storytelling often felt light on specifics. The movie opens with Sean, a construction worker, leaving a building site near a body of water, but it took me a while to figure out that they were supposed to be in Boston (it was filmed in Montreal). The class differences between Martha and Sean were repeatedly highlighted but as far as I could tell, Martha’s professional-seeming job was never described. I only really got to know her through her clothing choices (stylish and minimal) and her wealthy and imperious mother (Ellen Burstyn) who tries to solve every problem with money. Despite the clunky writing, Burstyn came through as the most real person in the movie. Sarah Snook appears, playing a version of her Succession character, Shiv—which is fine—but she felt like she came from a different universe. There were times when Sean’s struggles with addiction also felt tacked-on, as if it were supposed to explain his character’s personality.
Still, there were many compelling and emotionally complex scenes, and the first passage–the long birthing sequence–proved to be a powerful narrative anchor, one that gave the movie gravity, even when the screenplay faltered. I also appreciated the cinematography, especially the way the camera moved through interior spaces. Instead of going in for a close-up during scenes of conflict, it often pulled back to frame the scene, or darted around to come at it from a different angle. It was as if the camera was always trying to put things in a larger perspective, to show us that eventually, these characters would come out on the other side of their pain.