One can imagine such respected studio directors as Norman Jewison or Sidney Lumet making a film about the legal battle at the heart of “Pieces of a Woman”: A terrible tragedy has occurred, and an expectant young Boston couple (played by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) have taken their midwife (Molly Parker) to court. The media are all over the story, which casts the entire practice of home birth into question. But instead of focusing on the trial, Hungarian director Kórnel Mundruczó concentrates our attention on the couple, both of whom are shattered by the experience — but especially on the wife, who has more to rebuild than just her relationship. It is her very identity that’s on the line in this mature, masterfully acted human drama.
Though he’d been invited to Cannes before, Mundruczó (“Delta,” “Johanna”) grabbed the world’s attention a few years ago with a movie called “White God,” in which all the stray dogs of Budapest rise up against their bipedal overlords. It was a bombastic but ultimately ridiculous film — a B-movie variation on Hitchcock’s “The Birds” treated with utmost seriousness — which developed a cult following while adding nothing significant to the cultural conversation. He returned three years later with a more substantive film, surreal refugee fable “Jupiter’s Moon,” although technique once again eclipsed the telling.
Early on, it feels as if the same could happen to “Pieces of a Woman,” Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber’s first English-language project: A few minutes in, after establishing salt-of-the-earth construction worker Sean (LaBeouf) and his relatively refined wife Martha (Kirby), Mundruczó launches into one of those stunts that will go down in film history. Decades from now, whether they love or hate the movie (it’s the kind that divides), audiences will still be talking about the virtuoso 23-minute “oner” — an elaborate, unbroken plan sequence that stretches the duration of a scene, à la “Children of Men” — in which Martha gives birth.
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The shot starts casually enough, with Martha’s contractions arriving six minutes apart, but quickly escalates as her water breaks. Sean calls the doula, only to learn that she’s busy with another delivery. The woman sends a replacement, Eva, who’s warm and encouraging (qualities Parker so effortlessly embodies), guiding them through the process. Your average viewer may not notice that Mundruczó doesn’t cut, choreographing DP Benjamin Loeb’s camera so it’s right in the middle of the process, but they will certainly feel the mounting tension. Can he sustain this all the way through childbirth? In short, yes, Mundruczó intends to capture the miracle of delivery in all its joy and agony — stripped of glamour, yet completely spontaneous and unpredictable despite the careful planning this scene must have required.
Think of all the great actors who’ve gotten the chance to die on camera over the years. But how many have been able to give birth before our eyes? It’s a wondrous thing to watch, although the tone takes a turn toward the end of the scene, and suddenly this precious rite shared by so many women assumes a sharp pang of suspense. There’s blood in the bath, and the baby’s heartrate isn’t where it should be. Audiences must discover for themselves what happens, but suffice to say, the results aren’t typical, and it will take the rest of the film to process the shock.
It’s hard to proceed without giving away too much. Sean and Martha seem so close during the delivery — a couple from separate classes, where the gap between their white- and blue-collar identities is bridged by an intuitive intimacy that renders them stronger together — but as they both try to make sense of this tragedy, their inner demons reemerge, and they seem less like a couple and more like two separate, susceptible people.
We learn that Sean has addiction issues. “I’ve come back from death before,” he says. This latest setback could send him to the brink again. Meanwhile, Martha has weaknesses as well. She carries the damage wrought by a domineering mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who remains an invasive presence in her life. Elizabeth has never approved of Sean, but senses a way to manipulate the situation through him. It’s her idea to sue the midwife, although it’s unclear what the family hopes to gain by doing so. Will this bring the couple closer together? Not likely.
In some marriages, pregnancy can drive a wedge between the parties, upsetting whatever magnetism attracted them in the first place. In others, parenthood and the responsibilities it confers become the cement that holds a couple together. For Sean and Martha, we sense that they needed this child. The complications could be their undoing.
With mesmerizing skill, Mundruczó and Wéber (who, significantly, share “a film by” credit) explore the ramifications of loss on these two fundamentally good but imperfect people. Many would-be parents have faced similar challenges, which makes “Pieces of a Woman” both empowering (to see this universal human experience so sensitively depicted) and somewhat risky: No matter how respectful the filmmakers intend the film to be, their treatment examines Martha and Sean’s trauma through the lens of melodrama, which thrives on conflict rather than the kind of communication they so desperately need to heal — and which seemed to exist in their relationship prior.
Is it fair, for instance, to bring all the characters together — not just the couple, but also Martha’s sister (comedian Iliza Shlesinger, striking in this serious role), her husband (filmmaker Benny Safdie), mom Elizabeth and the caught-in-the-middle cousin-cum-lawyer (Sarah Snook) who agreed to take the case — for the kind of overcooked family gathering one might expect from a “Sopranos” season finale? And isn’t the film’s symbolism a bit too on-the-nose? Sean builds bridges, a career that has a direct resonance with his relationship. Martha obsesses over apples. While her houseplants go neglected, she tries to sprout their pips, as if to prove that she can create life (when grafting is the way to go, but nowhere near as elegant a metaphor).
A complicated personality off-screen, LaBeouf brings tenderness and vulnerability to the role, revealing a side of himself we seldom see — this despite the fact he literally turns his back to the camera during his most brittle scenes, including a key exchange with Elizabeth when Mundruczó shoots him from behind because head-on would be too painful. The director was right to enlist an actor as mighty as Burstyn to play the mother-in-law. The choice makes the character that much more imposing, and her conviction turns a late monologue into a showstopper: “I know what it’s like to start over. You have to burn bridges.”
But this is ultimately Kirby’s movie, as the stage marvel (better known to audiences for her work on “The Crown”) delivers her most impressive screen performance to date — not just the remarkable commitment of that childbirth scene, but the way she navigates the character’s uncertainty for the rest of the movie. Martha has such a complicated reaction, both physical and psychological, to her delivery that it couldn’t have been easy for Kirby to decide how to play so many seemingly contradictory facets: devastated yet resilient, angry but empathetic. The courtroom scenes, when they come, are less about the case than about Martha’s feelings of guilt. Mundruczó and Wéber gave her the pieces from which to assemble this character, but only Kirby could have taken that puzzle and turned it into such an astonishing portrait.