Pieces of a Woman
|Pieces of a Woman|
|Directed by||Kornél Mundruczó|
|Screenplay by||Kata Wéber|
|Based on||Pieces of a Woman|
by Kornél Mundruczó
|Music by||Howard Shore|
|Edited by||Dávid Jancsó|
Pieces of a Woman is a 2020 Canadian-American drama directed by Kornél Mundruczó, from a screenplay by Kata Wéber. The film stars Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails and Ellen Burstyn. Martin Scorsese serves as one of the executive producers. An American-Canadian co-production, the film is directly related to Mundruczó and Wéber's 2018 stage play of the same name, performed by the artistic ensemble of TR Warszawa.
Pieces of a Woman had its world premiere on September 4, 2020 at the 77th Venice International Film Festival, where Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. It was released in select theaters on December 30, 2020, before beginning to digitally stream on Netflix on January 7, 2021. The film received generally positive reviews, with praise for the performances of Kirby, LaBeouf and Burstyn. For her performance, Kirby was nominated for the Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA Award, Critics' Choice Award, and Screen Actors Guild, among others.
Martha goes into labor at their home and Sean calls their midwife Barbara; she is unavailable and sends another midwife named Eva in her place. Martha struggles with nausea and pain during contractions and, when she reaches ten centimetres, Eva realizes the baby's heart rate has dropped dangerously low. Sean asks Eva if they are safe to continue and Eva tells Sean to call an ambulance. Martha soon gives birth to a baby girl who at first seems healthy. Eva then notices the baby is turning blue and attempts to revive her, but she goes into cardiac arrest and dies.
The following month, Martha and Sean attend an appointment with a coroner; Sean is eager to find out what went wrong, while Martha is reluctant. They learn the cause of death has not yet been established but are told they were able to determine that the baby was in a low-oxygen environment and have started proceedings against Eva. Sean leaves, overcome with emotion, while Martha remains and decides that she wants to donate the baby's body to science.
The relationship between Martha and Sean continues to be strained, as is Martha's relationship with her mother, who wants to bury the baby and have a funeral. Both Martha and Sean remain deeply depressed. Sean returns the car that Elizabeth bought for them. He later has sex with Martha's cousin, Suzanne, and uses cocaine after being sober for almost seven years. Suzanne, who is also the attorney prosecuting Eva, informs him that a potential lawsuit against Eva could be very lucrative.
At a tense family gathering at her home, Elizabeth tells Martha that she has to attend Eva's trial and blames Martha for her baby's death because she decided to have a home birth. Elizabeth then tells Sean that she never liked him before offering him a check for large sum of money to leave and never return. Martha drops Sean off at Logan International Airport and he leaves for Seattle.
Months later, Martha testifies at Eva's trial. After her testimony, the judge allows her to address the court, and she states that Eva is not at fault for the death and that she does not blame her. Back home, she discovers that the apple seeds she started in her refrigerator have started to sprout. A month later, Martha scatters her daughter's ashes into the river from the bridge that Sean helped to build.
Years later, a little girl climbs an apple tree, picks an apple, and eats it. Martha calls her name, Lucy, then helps her down. The two go inside together.
In October 2019, it was announced Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf had joined the cast of the film, with Kornél Mundruczó directing from a screenplay by his partner Kata Wéber. The film is based on the 2018 play of the same name, also by Wéber and Mundruczó, which in turn was based on their own experience losing a child to an unsuccessful pregnancy, as well as taking elements from the trial of Hungarian midwife Ágnes Geréb. Wéber submitted the script to the Hungarian National Film Fund, but did not get support, later an American producer picked it up.
Sam Levinson and Martin Scorsese serve as executive producers on the film. In December 2019, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker and Iliza Shlesinger joined the cast of the film. In January 2020, Sarah Snook and Benny Safdie joined the cast of the film. Howard Shore composed the film's score.
The film is noted for its 24-minute long take labor scene at the start, dubbed "The Scene" by The Guardian's Adrian Horton. Prior to shooting, Mundruczó sent Kirby materials to inspire her performance of labor, including footage of home births, but wanted the actors to make their own performance choices; there were no marks to hit in the scene, LaBeouf came up with the bad jokes used in the scene himself, and the production team would not show the cast any of the stage performance so as not to overly influence them. Kirby also spent time shadowing midwives on a maternity ward to learn about the experience of childbirth, as she has not given birth herself. Director of photography Benjamin Loeb also physically trained beforehand so that he would have the strength to carry a gimbal-loaded camera for the whole take, though the shoot still negatively impacted his health. He chose the gimbal as he wanted a "floaty" quality to the scene to represent the baby's perspective and felt that using a hand-held camera would make it look too much like a documentary.
The scene was filmed six times over two days, four times on one day and twice the next, with one camera; it was the first scene shot for the film and took up over 30 pages in the script. The choice to use a single take stemmed from the play on which the film is based, which featured a live video feed captured by a camera freely roaming the stage as part of the performance. Loeb said that they "wanted to make sure that the sequence felt like it was presented as a long-winded breath in some ways". The fourth of the six takes was used; though less technically accurate than the takes on the second day, Mundruczó felt it was more alive.
Set within the couple's apartment, the scene was filmed in a real house. It had large archways that allowed Loeb and the cast movement – Kirby was encouraged to make use of the space if she wanted to – except for the bathroom door; Mundruczó initially wanted to pass in and out of the bathroom three times but this was reduced to once to limit the possibility of the shot being ruined. He had chosen the house because it had the same layout as the set design of their play. Before shooting, one practice run was taken; filmed on Loeb's phone, the practice took 38 minutes. Mundruczó did not do another practice, telling Vulture that "if you are very choreographed, then the whole shot can be really cold and calculated, [and] when you don't fix anything, it [can] become a Dogme style of shaking camera." A real baby was used in the scene, with a CGI umbilical cord; the baby was held by its mother just outside the apartment and brought in off-camera for the moment of birth. Mundruczó and Kirby both felt the real baby was integral to the film. Other realism was achieved in the scene: partway through the scene, Sean frantically searches for a phone to call 9-1-1, and in about half of the takes, including the final cut, LaBeouf really struggled to remember where the prop was placed.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker described the scene as a "mere stunt", saying that it is emotionally empty until the last moments and its significance to the rest of the film is an "ultimately pointless symbolic function: as evidence." Vulture's Hillary Kelly instead felt that the scene "is a technical trick, but an emotional lever, too, a reminder that labor is a process you cannot wriggle out of once it has begun."
The film had its world premiere at the 77th Venice International Film Festival in official competition on September 4, 2020. Shortly after, Netflix acquired worldwide distribution rights to the film. It also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in late September 2020.
Pieces of a Woman was released in select theaters on December 30, 2020, before beginning to digitally stream on Netflix on January 7, 2021. Upon its digital release, it was the most-watched film over its first three days of release, and finished second overall in its debut weekend.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 75% based on 222 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Pieces of a Woman struggles to maintain momentum after a stunning opening act, but Vanessa Kirby's performance makes the end result a poignant portrait of grief." On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 66 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Xan Brooks of The Guardian gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, writing: "Viewed as an acting masterclass, the film is bruisingly impressive in its way. The principal actors raise the roof; each gets to do their big turn for the camera. But it feels a little schooled, a little staged, like a workshop at the Actors' Studio; this impression isn't helped by the over-insistent score, which drops like a lead weight after each full-throated exchange."
Writing for Variety, Peter Debruge said, "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." The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney said that "those with the stomach for a forcefully acted representation of the gut-wrenching impact and long-range after-effects of sudden infant death will be rewarded with moments both powerful and affecting."
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