Extended cinematic takes of the kind popularised recently by 1917, Birdman and Victoria place the burden on a director and cinematographer, though they aren’t exactly a cake-walk for actors either. Vanessa Kirby, seen previously as Princess Margaret in The Crown, spends an unbroken 20-minute take near the start of Pieces of a Woman giving birth without once dropping her American accent.
The camera averts its gaze occasionally from Martha (Kirby), a first-time mother, to allow for vital changes to be effected in the mise-en-scène, such as the appearance of the child’s head between her legs. (No babies were born in the making of this film.) The sequence has an absorbing momentum, just so long as you’re not a battle-scarred parent reeling from a labour that lasted longer than a season of The Crown, and prone to shout at the screen: “20 minutes for a first baby? That’s not giving birth. That’s a sneeze.”
With the film’s wintry colour scheme and fraught emotional register already established, there exists also the creeping suspicion that we would not be seeing the sequence in such detail if it was destined to end in flowers, bootees and helium balloons. The picture opens with Martha’s partner Sean, a rough-and-ready construction worker, tempting fate by promising that his unborn daughter will be the first person to cross the bridge that he is helping to build over the Charles River in Boston. (He is played by Shia LaBeouf, absent now from some of the film’s publicity after accusations of domestic abuse.) Next, Martha’s elderly mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who never goes anywhere without a chequebook and an air of frosty disapproval, buys the couple a people carrier in anticipation of their expanding family.
The most explicit harbinger of tragedy occurs during the baby shower in Martha’s office, where a knife plunges through the cake like a guillotine blade, missing the ornamental infant on top by millimetres. As Martha rides the elevator to street level, each passing floor is registered with a beep that could be a hospital heart monitor.
She has insisted on a home birth, and is discombobulated when her preferred midwife is substituted at the last moment. Eva (Molly Parker) seems kind and attentive, though, and it is only when her attempts to locate a heartbeat produce a squelching sound that trouble looms. Eva assures Sean that the situation is “not outside the realm of normal”. But the pause when he asks, “We’re OK, though?” is longer than it should be. You could drive a people carrier through that pause.
Pieces of a Woman is divided into eight sections spanning seven months, from the birth of the baby to Eva’s prosecution for manslaughter. Each part is heralded by a shot of the bridge, its opposing halves inching closer to one another like a rapprochement being negotiated. The family members handle their suffering in different ways. For Elizabeth, the legal proceedings present an opportunity to heal wounds from her traumatic upbringing during the Holocaust. Sean deals chiefly in rage. He berates a doctor who can’t provide a cause of death, and intimidates a salesman into refunding the cost of the car now that there aren’t so many people who need carrying.
Martha herself is numb, filmed through shopfronts or car windscreens to suggest a figure trapped under glass, like the featureless child mannequins that stare out at her from displays in the mall. Occasions when she can be roused to anger – in a dispute over the spelling on her daughter’s gravestone, for instance – are almost a relief. At least she knows in those moments how she feels. The rest of the time, she is adrift in a nebulous, inexpressible grief, which Kirby conveys with unreadable looks that place her agonisingly out of reach.
Aside from the sequence of Martha in labour, the director, Kornél Mundruczó, prefers to break tense scenes into fussy abstracted close-ups of someone’s clavicle, say, or a pair of wringing hands. He and the screenwriter, Kata Wéber, sometimes reach for an effect without knowing quite how to achieve it. They dearly want to include a scene in which Martha holds a photograph of her baby as the image develops, so that she can watch it come to life, as it were, in her hands. This would offset the earlier images of disappearance and diminishment, from the children’s handprints on a steamed-up window to the exercise ball which deflates like a once-pregnant belly.
But how to engineer that scene with the photograph? It’s just about believable that Sean documented his daughter’s birth on film rather than digitally. What’s less plausible is that the sales assistant would take Martha into the darkroom and leave her alone with the trays of developing fluid while he vanished.
The end result – Martha delivers her own baby in photographic form – is undermined by the means used to achieve it. In construction terms, a film that countenances scenes such as this one, or the kitsch, summery coda in an orchard, could only be described as unstable. Sean would never sign off on it. Health and safety would throw a fit.
“Pieces of a Woman” is on Netflix from 8 January.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war