Entertainment

Why Netflix's 'Pieces of a Woman' Is Already a Controversial Movie

The opening sequence is intense.

pieces of a woman
Netflix

For good or ill, the beginning of Netflix's Pieces of a Woman is astounding. About six minutes in starts an unbroken take that lasts for more than 20 minutes in which Vanessa Kirby's character Martha, a professional woman in the Boston area, goes into labor at her home. She wants to have a home birth, but it's clear pretty quickly that something is going to go wrong. Horribly so.

The midwife who she had hired is not available, so a substitute, Eva (Molly Parker), comes. The camera circles around Martha as the labor intensifies, allowing the audience to feel every burp and grunt and scream. The false calm dissolves into panic as her pain spreads. Eva and Martha's husband (Shia LaBeouf) started debate as to whether to call an ambulance, as Eva tries to maintain that everything is under control.

Throughout the entire harrowing sequence, it's hard not to be taken in by director Korn√©l Mundrucz√≥'s virtuosic filmmaking, which relishes in the beauty of this trauma. It's also quite obvious that this is headed into tragedy, even though there is a brief glimmer of hope in the final moments of the birth. Any relief is then ripped away as the color drains from Eva's face and her smile of success turns into horror. 

Ever since Pieces of a Woman premiered on the largely virtual fall film festival circuit last year, its opening has been talked about as either something you must see because of how skillfully it is executed and how extraordinarily precise Kirby's performance is, or something you must avoid given how realistically brutal it is‚ÄĒespecially if you are a new parent or expecting a child. As the movie finally debuts on Netflix, it is destined to become the subject of both praise and controversy.

pieces of a woman
Netflix

It's also just the beginning of a two hour and seven minute long film, the rest of which becomes muddled thanks to thin characterization and a trial plotline that draws attention away from its central exploration of grief. Positioning itself as an exploration of Martha's psyche after her unimaginable loss, the screenplay, written by Mundrucz√≥'s partner Kata W√©ber, struggles to find its center. 

The Crown's Kirby, already the subject of Oscar chatter, is undeniably excellent, but the nuances of her performance are drowned in half-baked plots. As Martha's mother, Ellen Burstyn is charged with playing a caricature hellbent on getting legal justice her daughter doesn't seem to want. Meanwhile, the portrait of a marriage unraveling in the face of extreme sorrow is stifled by LaBeouf's stilted portrayal of a man whose lower social status is never fully explored, rather used as some kind of personality signifier. Since Pieces of a Woman's debut, LaBeouf's ex-girlfriend musician FKA Twigs has filed a lawsuit detailing extensive and galling allegations of abuse against the actor. This knowledge makes all of his scenes particularly troubling, but especially complicate an instance where his character tries to coerce Kirby's into sex, which was already upsetting and under-explored.

Unrelated to LaBeouf's unfortunate casting, the backstory of Pieces of a Woman makes it difficult, in some ways, to criticize Mundruczó and Wéber's choices: They have said that the otherwise "highly fictionalized" story was inspired by the loss of their own child. That personal experience is most evident in what is essentially the traumatic prelude, which is both distressingly real and highly stylized. (Kirby, for her part, watched a woman giving birth for research.)

When I first watched the film during its run at the Toronto International Film Festival, I found myself gasping in shock and holding back tears during the birth scene. But as soon as it was over, I was angry. I had been bracing myself for the impact of the loss of the infant, which anyone could foresee, and felt almost suckered by Mundrucz√≥'s cinematic flourishes and the energetic camerawork of cinematographer Benjamin Loeb. It was impressive, but for what purpose? To make the audience feel worse about something that is already devastating? To render a viewer numb to everything else that would follow? The intense precision of the first 20 minutes render Martha's agony to an exercise in cynicism, jostling the audience's emotions. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.