In A.S. Byatt’s novel Still Life, the author memorably describes a pregnant character’s intensifying labor pains. The author makes it clear that giving birth is inherently risky, that the bodies of both mother and child are in danger. Although the gravity of that moment in a woman’s life is regularly fictionalized, birthing scenes on film often feel staged or are played down for laughs. Pieces of a Woman spends twenty prolonged minutes trying to reach a level of verisimilitude by zeroing in on one woman’s troubled homebirth.
We first meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby, The Crown) when she’s full-bellied at her baby shower. Kornél Mundruczó’s camera zooms in on the cutting of the cake. Then the director abstracts the guests’ bodies by pulling away from their conversations. It’s not just that what they’re saying is trivial. He’s filming the party from Martha’s remembered point of view. Later, she won’t recall what her friends were talking about but she will see the image of the yellow duckling, with its cheerful grin, on the center of the cake. With his lens so carefully attuned to Martha’s psyche, Mundruczó creates a liminal space that hovers between the past and the present. The strained atmosphere is reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s film Birth (2004), which also studies the impact of loss on its heroine.
Mundruczó (White God) is as concerned with architectural geometry as he is with the way that the characters fit inside or adjacent to buildings. The Hungarian director films Martha through elevator glass, framing her against windows and hallways. Interior designs of houses and offices seamlessly merge with Martha’s state of mind. There are recurring close-ups of neglected plants and dirty dishes. The most visually resonant image that recurs though is a bridge that’s slowly being assembled across a river.
When something goes wrong during the homebirth, it shouldn’t be a spoiler to read that Martha and her partner Sean’s (Shia LaBoeuf) baby girl dies. Whatever brought the couple together initially vanishes afterward. In this role, LaBoeuf is not only willing to be disliked but loathed. Sean is incapable of doing or saying the right thing. After the death of their child, he can’t comfort himself or Martha. The bridge that’s slowly connecting across that cold, wide river isn’t a metaphor for their relationship. It doesn’t represent any relationship that Martha has in her life, including the contentious one she has with her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn).
Elizabeth finds a place for Martha in her crosshairs at the beginning of Pieces of a Woman. She disapproves of Sean and makes petty, controlling remarks about Martha’s appearance. Then the screenwriter, Kata Wéber, goes on to write several startling monologues for Burstyn’s supporting performance. The speeches fill out her character so she doesn’t come across as simply petty. To some viewers, Elizabeth’s anger toward her daughter might seem misdirected or misguided. But they’re intended to provoke her daughter out of her impenetrable shell. What’s remarkable about Kirby’s response to Burstyn is the way she stands her ground. Martha knows exactly who she is and what she wants. Martha can summon, at will, a fund of emotional and intellectual clarity.
But Wéber displays a masochistic streak throughout the movie. She’s determined to bruise her protagonist. Shortly after Martha returns to work, she steps inside a clothing store at the end of the day. A little girl there catches her attention. She’s shuffling through coats on a rack but stops when she feels the weight of Martha’s eyes on her back. They stare at each other until Martha realizes milk is leaking from her breasts, darkening her sky blue sweater. The writer continues to unnerve Martha on the train ride home. She places a number of children on the adjacent seats. Mundruczó closes the scene by focusing on the ghostly handprints they leave behind on the train’s foggy windows.
In Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014), a young woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body. The character can have an abortion, or not. Shame, the movie asserts, is a vestigial emotion. Pieces of a Woman extends this thesis even further and complicates it. Martha runs circles around Sean in a number of ways that now negates their shared future. She hasn’t known a greater tragedy than her daughter’s death and doesn’t always behave politely in the aftermath. But instead of being subsumed by grief, Martha’s mind has been sharpened by the experience. She doesn’t need Sean or Elizabeth to rescue her by telling her how to heal. Nor does she feel any obligation to live up to their expectations. Martha intuitively knows how to save herself.
Pieces of a Woman is streaming on Netflix.