Any discussion of Pieces of a Woman, a Netflix drama from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó about a couple reeling from the sudden death of their infant daughter during labor, almost inevitably hinges on The Scene. Said scene is a 24-minute single take spanning the entirety of a home birth; a swinging single camera follows Boston couple Sean (Shia Labeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby) from giddy early contractions to agonized labor on the floor, in the bath tub, on the bed, through the last-minute replacement midwife Eva’s (Molly Parker) realization of the baby’s flagging heart rate to the couple’s initial joy as they hold their baby girl and, finally, their horror as her cries fade away. Expertly choreographed and relentlessly focused, anchored by absolute physical commitment from its leads, the scene demands penance from the viewer. I started it splayed on my bed, and left in a crouch.
The scene has also become, through press and merited praise for Kirby’s performance, the film’s calling card, both for viewers on Netflix and awards contention. No serious discussion for the best actress race at this point omits Kirby’s name. (Now is as good a time as any to mention that LaBeouf’s intensity in the scene, and his blustering, forceful portrayal of grief throughout the film, lands more queasily given the allegations of abuse made by his former girlfriend, the singer FKA Twigs, in the New York Times last month; Netflix has since removed his name from their For Your Consideration packages). The scene composes the film’s first quarter – the rest unfolds, in episodes delineated by date, over the next eight months, as Sean and Martha’s marriage unravels and her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) spearheads a hazy criminal negligence trial against Eva. But it’s undeniably the film’s center of gravity and its selling point, sharp and meticulous where the rest of the film is foggy, underwritten, and overdrawn.
From its title, Pieces of a Woman purports to explore the shards of a person, or of a marriage, shattered by unimaginable loss. But, frustratingly (and at no detriment to Kirby’s performance), Martha’s trauma is the piece that receives the lion’s share of attention. The film unintentionally ends up playing into a common trap of film and TV seriously interested in female trauma: defining a woman by the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, spotlighting the traumatic event in eye-popping, absorptive detail while leaving all pieces outside it murky, out of view.
Pieces of a Woman shares its intention to trace the long, spiraling shadow of under-represented (or, at least, under-represented in terms of nuance) female trauma with the similarly titled Promising Young Woman, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s tart, ambitious dark comedy of #MeToo-era revenge. Though disparate in tone – Pieces a chill breeze in the dead of winter, Promising Young Woman the snap of bubblegum – both films depict a woman reeling from irreparable trauma, and star an English actor whose career-topping performance brings far more depth than written. (Both were also released on the festival circuit in 2020 and made available, on VOD and Netflix, respectively, in the last month). Both films orbit around the arresting concept of an early scene (for Promising Young Woman, a woman baiting predators by pretending to be black-out drunk) that ultimately reveal the trickiness of hinging a movie on trauma when the responses to said trauma – the processing, the backslides, the idiosyncrasies, the range – aren’t given nearly as much attention or care as the trauma hook itself.
That is partially the case in Promising Young Woman, which coats a molten core of rage and grief stemming from a sexual assault on Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) childhood best friend into a hard-candy shell of revenge. In Pieces, Kirby’s Martha is a withdrawn, intensely physical presence, recoiling from physical touch and enduring conversation with tautly restrained, detached grief. But the film, written by Mundruczó’s wife Kata Wéber, barely affords her space or time to speak. The film’s latter half meanders into Sean’s escapism through drugs and an affair with a prosecutor cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) overseeing their criminal case, with the thinly drawn and hastily paced court case itself, and with Elizabeth’s toxic conviction to litigate Martha’s grief as her own. Where the labor scene depicts Martha’s tragedy in clinical, sweeping detail, Martha herself remains, Kirby’s evocative performance aside, maddeningly opaque.
No film will perfectly capture such a personal, isolating trauma, and there is genuine revelation to seeing pain often trivialized or sanitized borne in detail on screen. (As exemplified by both the pushback and strong response to Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram post of her agonized face moments after she lost a baby last year, or Meghan Markle’s New York Times op-ed on her grief post-miscarriage, the pain of losing a child one scarcely had time to know remains stigmatized and often un-verbalized).
But such revelations should not preclude dealing with the fallout of throat-grabbing depictions. The 24-minute labor scene was, indeed, unlike anything I have ever seen; I just wish it treated Martha with the same finesse as the trauma meant to define her, found the shadowed path beyond trauma as interesting as the incendiary event itself, and wanted its audience to care as much about the woman at its center as the evidence of her most shocking piece.