As the UK goes back into lockdown, people are seeking more and more comfort watches from streamers, a virtual hug through the television. But the exact opposite can be found in Netflix’s big release this week, Pieces Of A Woman, which delivers some of the most uncomfortable and harrowing scenes this awards season.
The focus of festival season’s attention was on the half hour before the title card in Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s drama, and for good reason. While the latter three quarters of Pieces Of A Woman suffer from heavy-handed symbolism and jarring dramatic speeches at times, the unbroken 25 minutes of discomfort and brutality as we’re given a visceral look into what should be the most joyous moment in young couple’s lives are unforgettable.
Martha (Vanessa Kirby) has gone into labour at home, insistent on the home birth she prepared for. Her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf) calmly informs her that their selected midwife is unable to attend as she is in another labour, so Eva (Molly Parker) will be stepping in. All seems to be going well when she arrives – although Martha is nauseous and in agony, the baby’s heartbeat is strong when Eva checks it.
The first inkling that something has changed is when a writhing, moaning Martha gets out of the bath and drops of blood appear, followed by flickers of nerves and hesitation from a flustered Eva. It is not a spoiler to say that the 25 minute scene reaches a crescendo of tragedy, a gut punch to an already devastating experience. Even if you were unaware of the film’s synopsis, the scene unfolds in a way that warns you that it will end in heartbreak.
It’s a testament to Kirby’s acting that you almost forget you’re watching a film, and start to feel like you’re intruding on a sacred time, not meant to be watched by outsiders. With every guttural wail and jutting neck movement, you find yourself backing away from the screen, fidgeting and stretching your own limbs as you witness the almost unbearable pain of childbirth playing out in front of you in real time. This is no soapy childbirth with perfect hair and comic shouting at the hopeless partner and a seamless crowning after two short pushes; this is agony, verging on a body horror. Heartbreakingly, we soon learn what is even more unbearable than the act itself, as Martha and Sean suffer any parent’s worst nightmare.
We’re out of the room, and after the half hour of high drama, we move into a period of stagnation. Martha is dealing with her devastating loss by not dealing with it, closing off to the world – including her mother’s friends who corner her in the supermarket – and radiating stoniness. This is the exact opposite to Sean, a former addict whose grief finds its form in breaking down and exploding in uncomfortable ways. Martha’s mother Elizabeth, masterfully played by Ellen Burstyn, who dislikes Sean due to his less than privileged background and is in the early stages of dementia, thinks the way to move on is to sue Eva, who faces charges of criminal negligence.
Other films would focus on the more obvious drama of the situation – the court case. However, we see very little of this, bar a few news bulletins. Instead, we witness the awkwardness and coldness that creeps over Martha and Sean’s relationship as they continue existing after their loss. The film’s only visible sex scene is one of great discomfort as Sean attempts to initiate sex with Martha, verging on forceful and non-consensual as hands are moved and limbs are contorted. There’s the rather heavy-handed introduction of Martha’s lawyer cousin (Succession’s Sarah Snook), who seems to connect with Sean in a way Martha can’t. All the while, Martha rejects suggestions from her overbearing mother and judgemental sister and anybody who shares their sorrow with her.
Not a lot happens past the title card, and it doesn’t need to. Pieces Of A Woman is at its best when letting Kirby show the toll that a tragedy like this can have on a woman and the life and world around her, which often manifests in the mundane, like dealing with having the body of a mother without a baby. It’s when the film tries to go big that it falters. A speech in the courtroom from Martha seems unbelievable and too cinematic. A monologue from Ellen Burstyn is forgivable due to the searing power and incredible acting, but details about Elizabeth’s life feel sudden and shoehorned in. And the repeat attempts symbolism of Sean’s work on bridges and Martha’s apple obsession jar.
All in all, this is Kirby’s film. While LeBeouf’s unravelling provides great contrast (although is a bit close to the bone considering recent allegations against the actor; notably, Netflix has removed him from consideration for awards season), it is her stillness pit against the feral pain of the intro that make Pieces Of A Woman a must watch – even if there is no enjoyment to be found.
Pieces Of A Woman is out now on Netflix.