The extended single-shot take is a powerful weapon in the film-maker’s arsenal. Without the punctuation of an edit or the breathing space of a change of angle, the single shot demands unwavering audience participation. It grabs us by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a device that is abused at least as frequently as it is used effectively: for every blisteringly kinetic action sequence from Children of Men, there is the showy plumage of something like Birdman.
But rarely have I seen a single shot used as arrestingly as the 23-minute sequence near the beginning of Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. Hours of labour; the traumatic home birth of the baby of Martha (the remarkable Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf); the way time compresses and stretches with each contraction; the devastating blunt force of tragedy that comes shortly after birth: all of this is condensed into a woozy, disorienting, umbilical unbroken take.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that the film deals with neonatal death: its seismic impact on lives; the impossibility of making sense of it, of anything, in the aftermath. It’s a subject to which Mundruczó (White God) and his writer and partner, Kata Wéber, have a personal connection, something that is evident in the deft balance between sensitivity of approach, and an unflinching eye for the banal but almost unbearable details. Details such as the way that, although Martha has retreated inside herself in the days after her daughter’s death, walling out the terrible sympathy of family and friends, her body betrays her. Her breasts still leak milk, her gait is still the ungainly waddle of a pregnant woman. A camera that floats like an unmoored soul, clinging to Martha, captures every jagged splinter of Kirby’s phenomenal performance.
The film is acutely perceptive on the effect of a bereavement on other people. The loss of a child is an agonising thing; the loss of a newborn, after that raw animal rush of birthing and the surge of love at first sight, is just unimaginable. Most people are daunted – Martha’s workmates are stricken and silent when she returns to her job. But some are drawn towards it, a ghoulish hijacking of grief, brilliantly shown in an encounter with a friend of her mother. The woman pantomimes condolences, pressing a talcum-scented hug on to Martha, whose face is a barely suppressed scream.
A high achiever who has always exceeded the expectations of others, Martha now finds herself at odds with loved ones on the “correct” way to process her bereavement. And in this, there are parallels with Eva Trobisch’s All Is Well (also on Netflix), a film about a woman trying to reconcile her trauma with her own strong self-image. Sean just wants the old Martha back, and feels that her chill retreat from him is a punishment. Wounded, he rekindles his addictions. LaBeouf’s is a forceful performance which stamps itself on the film, even in moments of restraint. Given recent headlines, however, his presence is perhaps not the asset it might have been.
As Martha’s overbearing mother, Ellen Burstyn delivers a tour de force of coiffed toxicity. As a Jewish woman whose mother gave birth to her under Nazi occupation, she believes that survival is the ultimate act of defiance. And although it is not explicitly stated, she hints that her daughter’s loss is also a failure of sorts. The dinner-party collision between mother’s judgment and daughter’s fury is a showcase for the scorching performances, and for the outstanding screenplay that feeds them.