Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman is about Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a couple who suffer a neonatal death. Director Kornél Mundruczó’s movie is a tough watch and an uneven drama, but its exceptional elements keep you glued to the screen—especially a gripping, one-take scene of home birth that runs nearly half an hour. It’s a flashy move, built on the backs of its actors and the planning and choreographing of its directorial and camera team. Kirby is seriously fantastic and the fact that the Logistic never overwhelmed the Artistic when shooting is quite a feat. But while the adrenaline, hope and grief of the scene are impressive enough to overwhelm the rest of the film, the visual fallout from this loss struck me even more deeply. Martha and Sean are shocked into stillness, something that’s depressingly relatable and shown throughout Pieces of a Woman with a subtle potency.
This is a phenomenon that’s likely come up over and over again during the past five years: You’re working, in the midst of something, and your phone buzzes. You spot something on Twitter. A news bulletin flashes. Something terrible has happened. Maybe a national treasure has died. Maybe the dangerous response to a pandemic is continuing to cripple your nation. Maybe domestic terrorists have invaded the nation’s capitol with little more than some racist t-shirts and a lack of melanin. Whatever it is, it stops you in your tracks. You may still be on the clock, but c’mon, we all know work is done for the day.
This paralyzing negative emotional force can manifest as anxiety—a jittery affliction turning your brain’s usual database into a chaotic, useless beehive—but for me, it slaps me down as depression. It’s molasses, tarring my feet and sucking me onto the couch, the bed, deeper under the blankets and into the darkness. There are no cogent thoughts here, only motionless despair. After that tragic opening scene in Pieces of a Woman, Martha and Sean idle in this devastated holding pattern. A brief montage defines their mental state better than the plotting, which never again reaches the elegance and realism of the film’s introduction.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb captures perfect frames of domestic neglect that will be familiar to anyone that was waylaid in the past by unemployment, illness, loss, trauma, or general disillusionment with capitalism, democracy and all the ways in which we live life. My kitchen is often a disaster; more often, my desk’s messy kitchen chic never even leaves the room. My office houseplant is crippled and yellow, wilted on its shelf because honestly 2020 was nearly too much to give myself enough light and water. My depression sticks out like a sore green thumb. Similarly, Loeb and team (including production designer Sylvain Lemaitre) create images of neglect, languish and stationary pain.
Used pots, glasses and cutlery pile up around withered plants. Some are a crispy brown while others look like unhealthy overgrowth poking through a post-apocalyptic abandoned house. Long leaves string down from their hanging planters like damaged bleach-blonde hair. The clutter is natural—not hoarder-esque nor overblown—and so is the camera. It walks up and sits there, taking it in, just like you might wander into a room looking for something to do and then stand there, giving up on anything but simply persisting.
Other sequences, peppered throughout, capture this same stagnant feeling: A shower pours over Martha’s squished-up form and her raggedy fingernails. She meanders through a supermarket, absently picking up and smelling apples. They remind her of her baby and, at least, it’s something to do resembling normalcy. For every bit that the film’s impressive birth scene is ostentatious in its uncut display of mastery, these moments are crushingly simple and humane.
When change finally takes place—after a wintery jog, the sure sign of a desperate “New Year, new me” gameplan—it happens an hour and a half into the film. Martha picks up the discarded food containers, the takeout trash. She does the dishes. This only happens after Sean has fled the state, flying to another coast. It’s a catalyst to shake off the depression cobwebs, to somehow find the strength and energy to start being a human again. By the end of the film, after Martha’s catharsis, her sink is empty and her plants are green. Sunlight (god, remember sunlight?) floods in. Nature is healing. It’s certainly not as front-and-center as the film’s central piece of imagery—a belabored bridge construction—and that’s why it works all the better. Martha’s moment of trauma may be the standout scene from Pieces of a Woman, but it’s the subtle depiction of slowing rebuilding, after untold time spent stuck, that resonates in the subconscious.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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