▶︎ Pieces of a Woman is streaming on Netflix.
In Ariel Levy’s 2017 memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy describes, in heart-stopping, cinematic detail, the birth of her son, premature at only 19 weeks, on the bathroom floor of a Mongolian hotel. He lies on the tiles, her boy, “pretty as a seashell… translucent and pink and very, very small.” Waiting for an ambulance to arrive she used her phone to take a picture of her son. “I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.”
Martha (Vanessa Kirby), the grieving mother at the centre of Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, also clings to the indexical proof of her daughter, lost early in the film when a home birth goes suddenly, terribly wrong. In the darkroom of an old-fashioned print developers, a submerged photo of her dead child blooms, leaving Martha gasping.
But in the weeks after her death, which happens only moments after her birth, Martha’s daughter Yvette leaves her traces everywhere. In the dark smears on postnatal pads, the damp patches blossoming on the front of Martha’s shirt, her bowlegged walk into work just three weeks after she has lost her daughter, the three weeks considered sufficient compassionate leave to mourn a child. But as time heals Martha’s physical wounds, so it erases the imprint of her child’s brief life on the world.
Following a brief prelude setting the scene, Mundruczó’s film, co-written with his wife and regular collaborator Kata Wéber, opens in earnest with a 24-minute single shot take of the birth and death of Martha’s daughter. It’s a bravura sequence, which reminded me of the final sequence of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002): warm-lit, intimate, and infused with dread.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s close-ups emphasise the animality of birth, and its precarity; this is, after all, a matter of life and death. Fittingly, Loeb and Mundruczó allow an element of horror to creep in. Labouring in the tub, Martha’s suffering recalls so many women dead in bathrooms. Her dripping hand clenches and stretches, her dazed expression is an echo of Marion Crane’s.
After Yvette’s death, time becomes compressed. Martha and the film measure the passing of time by the dates and events that pertain to Yvette. On 17 September Martha loses her child. On 9 October the criminal autopsy takes place. Christmas comes and goes, unseen, unmarked. On 19 January Martha’s husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) sells the family car they’d bought to accommodate the impending arrival. On 5 February, he leaves her.
Winter turns to spring, the city of Boston frosts and thaws and the river Charles flows grimly on. Sean is part of a construction crew building a bridge over this river. He wanted his unborn daughter to be the first person across it. Instead, he finds himself talking of atomic particles and resonance and bridges collapsing under their own weight.
In this very actorly film, in which Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn, as Martha’s mother Elizabeth, are nothing short of magnificent, the casting of LaBeouf is curious, given the actor’s personal reputation. A boorish man-child, his impulses out of control, Sean tries to smother his grief with booze, drugs and sex, skewering his grieving wife to the same bed where her newborn child so recently died. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for him, but maybe we’re not meant to.
Pieces of a Woman is the Hungarian Mundruczó’s English-language debut. His earlier works, including the Cannes nominees White God (2014) and Johanna (2005), were altogether more slippery, more mysterious, more surreal.
Pieces of a Woman feels more tonally aligned with the flinty realism of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, another Massachusetts-set film about a grieving parent. Like that film, it ties things up rather too neatly, offering if not closure, then at least catharsis, in a way that feels somewhat trite in the wake of the emotional complexities that have gone before.
Still, life goes on. And as Ariel Levy puts it: “Most of the time it seems sort of OK.”