Sometimes a film can have a centerpiece that reverberates throughout the entire proceedings. It takes precision and understanding of structure to successfully maintain intrigue in the movie once the moment is over, but the film can also resonate well beyond its runtime.
The 2012 film The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and a younger Tom Holland, saw a family trying to reunite after the catastrophic tsunami in Thailand in 2004. The movie builds to its first and central crisis as the wave hits the resort where the family is playing around the pool area, and the unfolding scene is nothing short of a nightmare. The rest of the runtime tries to reunite the family with the devastation, and it works because the deathly wave is captured with raw intensity and harrowing detail. The audience takes hold of the atrocities from that scene and hopes for the family’s well-being up until its final stages. Were the scene with the tsunami anything short of harrowing, the film might not have worked. It’s no wonder the film’s director J.A. Bayona is now directing the first two episodes of Amazon’s yet-to-be-proven-massive-bargain TV adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
On a smaller scale, yet by no means less terrifying, the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó has accomplished a similar feat with his new Netflix film Pieces of a Woman, starring Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf. The film relies on a similar structure, whereby its centerpiece comes at the beginning of the film, and what follows is a direct result. It’s a story about a young mother’s tragedy when an unthinkable event occurs, and she must learn to live with the loss. It’s not only because the performances are well crafted, but Mundruczó ensures the camera captures the rawness of performances in this deeply personal story and how the young mother’s family copes with the loss.
We meet a heavily pregnant Martha (Vanessa Kirby) as she buys a car with her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), and sister Anita (Iliza Schlesinger) in tow. Her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is late coming from working on the docks, and Elizabeth makes a remark about him being late, ‘How can you build a bridge if you can’t tell the time?’, which captures their contentious relationship.
When Martha and Sean arrive home, Martha starts having contractions. Having organized a home birth with a midwife, they’re surprised to discover that the woman they’ve been preparing with is at another home birth, so another midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), is being sent instead. Eva is calm as Martha’s contractions intensify, and the baby seems to be arriving quickly. What unfolds is an exciting scene that turns into tragedy, and what follows is the fallout from this event.
Pieces of a Woman is divided into chapters and is written by Kata Wéber, who based the story on losing her child with Mundruczó. In one chapter, Sean and Martha go to dinner at Elizabeth’s home, where Suzanne (Sarah Snook), Martha’s cousin, has been invited to offer legal advice. At once, it’s an ambush and a plea for reasoning as Elizabeth tries to convince Martha to take the legal proceedings from the tragedy more seriously. It’s a heart-wrenching scene as Ellen Burstyn gives a brilliantly conceived monologue that feels like her heart is spilling open, and it’s her last resort in trying to get through to a grieving Martha. But where Martha chooses not to feel after the event, Sean is spiraling into drugs and alcohol, having been sober for six years.
The film’s triumph is taking the single, over twenty-minute take, expertly captured by Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb. The events reverberate through the rest of the movie because it’s filled with such raw detail. Director Kornél Mundruczó wants to seize the atmosphere of grief and the deep well opened after a tragedy. The camera acts almost like a whirlpool sinking this family downward. Just watch as Martha paces around the room while her brother-in-law Chris (Benny Safdie) and Sean talk about the White Stripes. Martha circles the living room silently, moving from the record player to the front window and behind the couch, trapped in movement as her mind races, and it’s only a single word uttered by Chris that snaps her out of the cycle.
As performed by Vanessa Kirby, Martha is dealing with unfathomable grief that sends her into numbness as she tries to comprehend her loss. The performance is fantastic, and it’s not until she wakes from her fugue state that she contextualizes her understanding of the whole situation.
It’s the combination of filmmaking and execution that helps the film transcend its heart-wrenching themes. The film’s single-shot centerpiece is likely to confound viewers, but it’s also why a film’s craft can be so exciting. Ultimately, with an ending that feels hopeful and open-ended, time seems to be the only adhesive that allows new seeds to grow and flourish.