Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Pieces of a Woman (2020), by Kornél Mundruczó.
The skyrocketing rise of Netflix not only kick-started a new era in the international film industry, but served as a stepping stone for an up-and-coming generation of directors and writers to reach some much-in-demand Hollywood stars.
Such an opportunity paved the way for Kornél Mundruczó, an ambitious and award-winning Hungarian filmmaker, to team up with the brilliant Martin Scorsese and direct the Pieces of a Woman, his first English-language film released in 2020.
Fueled by depressive and uneasy emotions, the American-Canadian-Hungarian co-production paints a deep personal tragedy through the lens of the long-debated subject of home birth, examining how a fruitful and happy relationship can go dramatically wrong after the sudden death of a newborn.
To authentically illustrate this heart-breaking story, the Hungarian director opted for an intelligent star-studded cast made up of Shia LaBeouf (Sean), Vanessa Kirby (Martha) and Ellen Burstyn (Elizabeth).
Presenting the characters’ lethargic inner and physical suffering was no simple feat. To achieve the desired effect, Mundruczó operated with the “one-shot” technique by limiting obvious cuts during the film – a craft analogous to Sam Mendes’ 1917 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, where the camera acts like a mere observer of the characters throughout the story.
In the opening scene of Pieces of a Woman, the viewer can experience the emotionally-charged pain of childbirth in a 21-minute-long single shot, filmed with perfect cinematic rhythm and tension.
Pieces of a Woman: A derailed relationship
The cons of giving birth without medical intervention and hospital staff often serve as the core of heated public debates. That is not the focal point of the movie, however, which instead focuses on the torment of a relationship after the tragic death of an infant.
Even though the movie’s subplot also follows a lawsuit against the midwife allegedly responsible for the baby’s death, Pieces of a Woman mainly concentrates on the emotional breakdown of the main characters, first and foremost Martha, but also her husband Sean and her mother Elizabeth.
The director portrays a woman whose entire existence has been shattered by the traumatic experience, lost in an emotional pain that goes on to poison diverse aspects of her life – professional, social and sexual.
Vanessa Kirby’s masterful performance makes this insoluble trauma palpable throughout the entire film, penetrating the very heart of the soul. There are enormous pressures in all human relationships, situations of crises and difficulties to solve, but Pieces of a Woman sketches an unexpectedly dramatic situation from which there appears to be no way back, and no way forward.
The duality of Kirby’s character is built up with precision and intelligence. Soon after the tragedy of her childbirth she tries to keep up appearances, repressing her emotions in front of colleagues, but painfully suffering in her private life depicted through her decaying relationship with her husband and mother.
The conflict and quarrel scenes are nicely paced in a soul-touching way. Director Kornél Mundruczó did a commendable job in elaborating the characters and bringing some dynamism and tension in the movie, but its conventional Hollywood-style solutions remain the film’s weakest spot.
The idea, for instance, to present the passing of time through the construction of a bridge slowly stretching its arms across the river may have been interesting from a symbolic and cinematic point of view, but showcasing the dates on the screen at the same time makes the intention slightly too obvious, even awkward.
The catharsis reached at the end of the film as the trial comes to a close is also trite and appears unrelated to the rest of the story-line, abruptly brushed away with a few well-shed tears.
The idyllically-shot closing scene, where a little girl picks an apple from a tree before being called to dinner by her mother, seems like a way to escape from coming up with a creative end to this heart-breaking story.
Despite some of its defects and shortcomings, Pieces of a Woman is definitely a movie that can shock you with its simple and realistic scenes, leaving your head reeling after the first or second viewings.
By Bence Janek