Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó broke through internationally in 2014 with his snarling social parable about the downtrodden rising up against their oppressors, White Dog. He puts aside political allegory to drill deep into the heart of family tragedy in his first English-language feature, Pieces of a Woman. Puncturing a brittle European veneer with spikes of more American emotional volatility, the drama wears influences from Ingmar Bergman to John Cassavetes — not always lightly. Despite some contrived script passages and unsubtle symbolism, the first-rate cast keeps it gripping.
Written by Kata Wéber, the director's partner and frequent collaborator as both screenwriter and actress, the new film is expanded from a multimedia theater piece they developed together. It opens with a superbly controlled pre-title sequence running almost a full half-hour, which will be harrowing for anyone contemplating parenthood.
Martha (Vanessa Kirby) seems serene as she receives congratulations at an office baby shower, and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction engineer on a Boston bridge project, is already bursting with pride about becoming a dad for the first time. Even his irritation at the shade implied by her controlling mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) buying them a car ("She got it gray like her soul; that's her spirit color") can't dampen his high spirits. He gives Martha a gift of framed ultrasound photos of their daughter to hang in the nursery.
Having prepared for a home birth, they call their midwife when contractions start. But Martha begins to freak mildly when the woman is unavailable, caught up in the middle of a difficult labor. Sean tries to keep the mood light with jokes and romance as Martha's water breaks and the replacement midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), arrives at the house. She reassures Martha that her nausea is normal and only begins to show concern when the baby's heart rate slows between contractions. Within minutes of their daughter being born, apparently healthy, the infant abruptly turns blue, and the paramedics arrive too late to save her.
This is a startling sequence of events, made more urgent by the restless agitation of DP Benjamin Loeb's camerawork, darting among the three adults in the house. The meticulous blocking that went into setting up this virtuoso scene must have been head-spinning. It all happens so fast that even with the immersive sense of participating in real-time trauma — shot in a single take using a gimbal — you find yourself later struggling, along with the characters, to piece together specific details as doubts, recriminations and unfounded guilt begin surfacing, both in private and public.
The absence of conclusive findings from medical examiners only compounds the couple's lack of closure. Sean, who has a history of addiction, reacts with violent frustration while Martha becomes cold and closed-off, horrifying her mother with her stubborn decision to donate her daughter's body to science. Elizabeth, an iron butterfly who wears her hair like a lacquered helmet, barrels ahead with legal action against the midwife, a witch-hunt stoked by the medical establishment. She enlists Martha's slick attorney cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook), who's confident they can win both criminal and civil cases against Eva.
The action is punctuated by shots of the harbor and date stamps, marking intervals over the seven months following the tragedy, during which the lawsuit is pushed forward while family relations break down.
In one strong ensemble scene that points to the material's stage roots, tensions boil over during a lunch gathering at Elizabeth's home, to which Martha's sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger) and her car salesman husband Chris (Benny Safdie) also are invited. Chris and Sean get into an animated back and forth about grunge bands and the weird period when The White Stripes were passing themselves off as siblings instead of spouses. Suzanne feigns interest, having zero engagement in pop culture, while Elizabeth dithers about, working on her own plan to help Martha move on.
Loeb's nimble camera again is a valuable storytelling tool as it ricochets among the guests in another feat of single-take dexterity, zigzagging between rooms but rarely taking its eye off Martha's pressure-cooker state for long. Her explosive anger makes it clear she doesn't share the hunger for justice that her mother supposedly "needs." This prompts an overwritten but nonetheless effective speech delivered in bristling close-up by the formidable Burstyn, in which Elizabeth spits out the harsh history of her own birth as a Holocaust survivor in Central Europe.
While LaBeouf brings his customary physicality to some punchy scenes, ranging across uncontrollable rage, caginess and crushed vulnerability as grief poisons the couple's relationship, the movie's shattered core, as its title would suggest, is Kirby's Martha.
She visibly hardens in the wake of her devastating loss, discarding the lovingly assembled elements of the nursery with a resolute absence of emotion. A scene where she returns to work — silently absorbing the pitying looks of her colleagues with the air of a woman as dangerous as she is damaged — is one of many such moments of charged intensity. And when she gazes at children on the street or the subway or in a department store, her eyes could be expressing tenderness or resentment. The remarkable Kirby gives a tough performance, bleeding beneath her armor-plated guard but refusing to soften Martha's abrasive sides as she undertakes the isolating work of learning to live with her loss.
In smaller roles, Snook and Parker both make incisive impressions, and Safdie is always an interesting screen presence, too infrequently seen beyond his movies with his brother. Jimmie Fails, such a revelation in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is under-utilized.
Mundruczó's command falters in climactic courtroom scenes that seem pedestrian and too movie-ish compared to the edgier psychodrama that's come before, especially when Martha gets stuck with a big heart-stirring trial speech. Such flaws are heightened by increasing overuse of Howard Shore's intrusive score in the latter sections. There are also clumsily obvious touches like Martha's interest in sprouting apple seeds as a metaphor for rebirth, or clunky allusions to bridges as tricky structures that sometimes need to be burned.
It's unclear who the audience will be for a drama so unflinching that its sunny coda feels almost like a betrayal. But 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.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: BRON Studios, Little Lamb, in association with Creative Wealth Media
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Ellen Burstyn, Jimmie Fails
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Screenwriter: Kata Wéber
Producers: Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder, Kevin Turen
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Jason M. Cloth, Aaron L. Gilbert, Sam Levinson, Stuart Manashil, Viktória Petrány, Steven Thibault
Director of photography: Benjamin Loeb
Production designer: Sylvain Lemaitre
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Dávid Jancsó
Casting: Jessica Kelly
Sales: BRON Studios