Review by Mia Sherry
There are a lot of famous long takes that have gone down in history: the Goodfellas (Martin Scorcese, 1990) Copacabana scene, the infamous tricycle shot in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining, more recently, there’s the entirety of 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2020) and Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014). Usually, these scenes are made memorable by their tension, the vast visual world on screen, and mounting suspense of what will happen when the cut between shots occurs. So when I heard that Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó, 2020) had one of the most knuckle-biting long takes in recent memory, I was skeptical – especially considering the subject matter: a home birth. In comparison to the theatrics of war, the luxury of gang life, or terror of the Overlook Hotel, I didn’t know what a birthing scene would necessarily add to the cult of the long take, and was doubtful of the contribution it would hold– would it be just another hollow gimmick?
To be blunt, I’ve never been more wrong. Though Pieces of a Woman might be labeled as a melodrama, it’s so much more than that, and is, at its heart, a meditative study of love, loss, and parenthood. It’s impossible to talk about Pieces of a Woman without mentioning that long shot, because Mundruczó packs all the action and tension of drama that would normally occur over a one-hour stretch into those first thirty minutes. The rest of the film feels like an afterthought: the debris of the fallout. Through it all, Vanessa Kirby (of The Crown fame) offers a powerhouse performance as Martha, expectant mother and wife to Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Her achievement as Martha is hard to put into words: deeply effective yet not at all theatrical, melancholic without being histrionic, quiet but powerful.
However, Kirby’s performance would not amount to much without one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen– Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Ellen Burstyn, Jimmie Fails, and, of course, the captivating Molly Parker. Parker plays Eva, the nurse helping Martha and Sean deliver their baby, and could rival Kirby for scene-stealing. We watch every move she makes, every frown, every delicate facial expression; knowing that if something goes wrong, Eva will be the first to know.
Though Pieces of a Woman is hardly a feel-good film, it is a beautiful testament to female strength and female vulnerability. Usually in films, women are relegated into one of two roles: the strong independent woman or the overly emotional, mother-hen caricature. What Mundruczó and Kirby show is that women can suffer unfathomable loss, go through near-debilitating pain, and show unmitigated courage and strength in that. That does not preclude them from being allowed to feel their grief, anger, or anything in between. It sounds simple, but it’s a nuance not often seen on screen. And though Pieces of A Woman might initially seem like an easily-coded generic melodrama, it is so much more than that. You just have to look below the surface, be patient, and allow Mundruczó’s sweeping emotional epic to envelope you in a meticulously crafted visual world that you won’t want to leave.