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'Pieces of a Woman': Don't look away

A consideration of the unbroken 23-minute childbirth scene at the heart of Kornél Mundruczó's film

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in 'Pieces of a Woman'
Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in 'Pieces of a Woman'

(This piece is a spoiler if you're unaware of the film's central storyline)

Single takes are deployed so well and so often for action or choreographic purposes now that it’s surprising when a film uses them for dramatic, rather than technical, ends. A long, tense scene without cuts imprisons the audience, forces them to reckon with what's unfolding in real time on screen. There’s an unbroken scene at the start of Pieces of a Woman that runs to 23 minutes. When it was over, I realised I was winded. Denied the momentary release of cuts, I'd been taking infrequent, guilty breaths, as if to do more was an indulgence in such a charged situation.

Kornél Mundruczó’s film starts with Sean (Shia LaBeouf) ending his work day at a construction site and his wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), ending hers in office. They meet at the dealership to pick up a new car. Sean has a gift for his wife, a framed photograph of a sonogram of their unborn baby, expected any day. Martha is moved but amused—the scans are upside down; a small premonition. At home, she hangs it on the wall, lowers herself into a rocking chair. There’s a cut, the last one for a long time.

Leaning against the kitchen counter, Martha feels uneasy. Sean calls their midwife, Barbara (they have decided on a home birth). But Barbara is busy with a delivery, so another midwife, Eva, is dispatched. Martha’s water breaks. She’s in considerable pain, but manages to smile through it and tell the nervous, solicitous Sean he looks handsome.

Eva (Molly Parker) turns out to be calm and confident, checking on the baby’s heart rate, coaxing Martha to the bathtub. It’s here, almost 15 minutes into the scene, that Mundruczó does something unexpected. As Sean checks in on Martha, the camera moves in for a closeup. They kiss, and we hear Howard Shore’s score for the first time. It’s a bold choice, for it reminds us that we’re witnessing performances, a scene, a film. But it also underscores a moment of beauty and hope—just before things go wrong.

In the bedroom, Eva instructs Martha to push. Kirby’s physical performance in the scene is astonishing, a succession of grimaces, winces, curses, groans and shouts. She’s nauseous, so she belches loudly from time to time. After a point, she lets loose. One of her roars is the scariest, most primal sound I’ve heard in a film.

Eva checks the baby’s heart rate again, tells Sean in confidence that they might have to transfer his wife to a hospital. But Martha insists on delivering there, so they keep trying. Mundruczó still won’t cut, so we’re right there with them, the camera moving unobtrusively, honing in on faces. “Any cut is an alternative for an audience to step out,” the film’s cinematographer, Benjamin Loeb, told Little White Lies. “By not doing that, you’re stuck in whatever feeling you have and there’s no way out”. It’s excruciating and astonishing—childbirth as exorcism, as cosmic miracle, the sort described by Patti Smith on the 1975 track Kimberly (I rolled in the grass and I spit out the gas/ And I lit a match and the void went flash/ And the sky split and the planets hit).

The baby is delivered. Eva hands her over to Martha, allows herself a moment of pure relief. The camera follows her as she looks at the couple behind her in a mirror. We can’t see what she does, but her expression changes. The baby is turning blue. Sean runs out into the street to hail the ambulance. The last few seconds of the scene are Martha and Eva trying to revive the baby.

Mundruczó and his partner Kata Wéber, the writer of the film, lost a child to a miscarriage. They wrote a play whose central characters go through a similar ordeal, which in turn inspired Pieces of a Woman. It’s easy to imagine this scene being as harrowing on stage as it is on film, perhaps even more so. There’s a reason not many films focus on the act of childbirth: it’s all too real. So much easier to make light of it (as in Nine Months or Knocked Up) or to condense the act in a familiar, impersonal manner—some screaming, a doctor yelling ‘push’, a crying child handed to an exhausted mother.

Pieces of a Woman points to the falseness of such scenes, yet it is also an example of the risks involved in depicting honestly the process of childbirth. The scene seems to sap the film’s energy. It’s not as if it goes on to strike a false note, just that the remaining hour is nothing we haven’t seen before. Whereas those 23 minutes are unlike anything else.

Pieces of a Woman is streaming on Netflix.

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