The first 30 minutes of director Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman” is grueling, bravura filmmaking that hangs over the rest of this unsettling drama, which had its world premiere at this week’s Venice International Film Festival. More than 20 of those minutes consist of a scene in the apartment of a young couple, Sean and Martha, beginning with Martha in labor and ending shortly after she gives birth to a daughter; shot in a single, uninterrupted take with almost no music, it cycles through anguish and terror and joy in intricate, loving choreography that always returns to the faces of actors Shia LaBeouf and, especially, Vanessa Kirby.
The sequence is gripping even in its most painful moments, as Martha struggles with a difficult birth with the help of an unfamiliar midwife substituting for the one they’d expected. But it ends in tragedy as they lose the baby, and the rest of the film is an extended meditation on coping with unimaginable loss.
Written by Kata Wéber as character sketches that were adapted for the stage and directed by Mundruczó, who is Wéber’s partner, “Pieces of a Woman” is the first English-language film from the Hungarian director who won the Un Certain Regard award in Cannes for his 2014 drama “White God.” It marks not only a move into a new language, but a significant return to form after the confused excesses of Mundruczó’s “Jupiter’s Moon,” which played Cannes in 2017.
Where that film was bizarrely fantastical but dramatically scattered, “Pieces of a Woman” is grounded and intensely personal. Much of that is due to the towering and heartbreaking performance by Kirby (best known for playing Princess Anne on the TV series “The Crown”), who makes Martha’s debilitating pain visible even when she’s trying desperately to hide it. LaBeouf is a solid counterpart but less of a revelation, and they’re surrounded by a topnotch cast that includes Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, director-actor Benny Safdie and, most importantly, Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s wealthy mother, who wants her daughter to do everything her way, including grieve.
But Martha and Sean have to figure out their own way to grieve even if it destroys the relationship, which it might do. A Boston construction worker who spends more time talking than listening, Sean wants someone to blame, and the midwife is an easy target even if we don’t see much in that opening sequence to think she was at fault. Martha, on the other hand, struggles for some small measure of acceptance and refuses to engage with Sean or her mother’s attempts to make someone pay.
Their grief drives them apart, and their attempts to bridge the widening gulf are almost excruciating: A desperate sex scene becomes brutal and sad and only pulls them further into their bottomless despair.
The movie isn’t afraid to highlight and underline its points – Sean is trying to build a bridge; Martha lets the dead plants and dirty dishes mount as silent symbols of the emotional wreckage – but it rarely feels overbearing. It builds to a confrontation at a family dinner party hosted by Martha’s mother, but Mundruczó makes us wait: The blow-up that we know is coming can’t happen until Sean and his brother-in-law (Safdie) finish their long discussion about the White Stripes. This scene is shot in another uninterrupted take that weaves through the large house, culminating in a searing monologue in which Burstyn’s character uses her history as a Holocaust survivor to bludgeon her daughter.
The characters don’t heal so much as they survive, becoming more and more drained. But Mundruczó has never been predictable as a director, and in the homestretch “Pieces of a Woman” steps away from its wrenching character study to become a courtroom drama of sorts. And then, after spending all of its running time being dark and tough, it gets surprisingly sentimental.
The sentiment comes as something of a surprise, and it’s hard to reconcile it with what has come before. But it’s a sign that Martha, and the film itself, refuse to surrender to despair – and after being immersed in these emotional ruins for two hours, it’s hard not to find some satisfaction in a bit of light.