Pieces of a Woman, which marks Hungarian-born Kornél Mundruczó’s English-language directorial debut, features one of the best opening scenes ever seen in recent years. Or more specifically, the first 30 minutes as construction engineer Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and his heavily-pregnant wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) are both looking forward to becoming a parent.
Then comes the crucial night where Martha goes into labour. Her intention is to give birth at home. But unfortunately, their midwife, Barbara, is unavailable and they end up with a replacement (Molly Parker’s Eva) instead. What follows next is an extended childbirth sequence — all impressively shot in a single take lasting approximately 24 minutes. It took two days of filming and six takes (four during the first day, and two on the following day) in total.
The whole scene alone is both technical and acting tour de force, where the latter particularly refers to Vanessa Kirby’s career-defining performance, the stunning English actress popularly known for her mainstream roles in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). Shia LaBeouf deserves credit for his equally remarkable performance as Martha’s supportive husband, Sean.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb does a splendid job pulling off such a demanding sequence with the help of a gimbal, as he lingers the camera around the interior space of Sean and Martha’s home. Together with Mundruczó’s expert direction, he also successfully captured all the mixed feelings of anticipation, anxiety, frustration and the intensity of the whole childbirth procedure.
Now, if only the rest of the movie is as great as the elaborate pre-credits opening sequence, I would have easily ranked Pieces of a Woman as one of the best movies of 2021 (even though it was originally released theatrically on December 30 last year but only available for streaming on Netflix on January 7, 2021).
Right after the home birth has unexpectedly turned into a tragedy, the remaining 90 minutes follows Sean and Martha are coping the loss of their newborn child differently. Sean has a tough time trying to let go but Martha chooses to bottle up her emotions. Her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) demands Martha to file a lawsuit against Eva’s incompetence and negligence as a midwife.
Screenwriter Kata Wéber infuses her script with all the sentimental approach of a Hollywood-style melodrama. It even comes complete with an inevitable and clichéd-ridden courtroom scene, which does have its moments (the scene where Martha addresses the court comes to mind). But all of this pales in comparison with the opening scene. It’s not like the rest of the movie is poorly-written or constructed. It’s just that given such a stunner of an opening scene, I would expect Mundruczó to sustain the same momentum.
Although Pieces of a Woman falls short of greatness, the overall movie remains a decent piece of work about dealing with grief and traumatic loss of a child.