This story contains spoilers for Pieces of a Woman, now streaming on Netflix.
It only takes a few scenes into Pieces of a Woman for everything to fall apart. The early moments of Kornél Mundruczó’s film, from a script by Kata Weber, are joyous. Young couple Martha (The Crown's Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf, who has been dropped by Netflix as an awards contender in light of the abuse allegations against him) are expecting their first child together. We see colleagues wishing Martha well as she sets off on maternity leave, and Sean, a contractor working on an extensive bridge project for the city, boasting to his buddies about his plans for the future. Elizabeth (Ellyn Burstyn), Martha’s mother, has bought them a mini-van to accommodate a forthcoming car seat. As they sit in their new vehicle, Sean shows Martha the ultrasound he’s had framed for them to put in the baby’s room. All of these fragments add up to what should be the beginning of a brand new life.
Seven minutes into the movie, Martha goes into labor. She’s planned for a home birth, but her midwife is attending another labor, and therefore unavailable. Another midwife (Molly Parker) arrives to help, and for the next 23 minutes, we watch Martha give birth in real time. It’s one of the most visceral depictions of birth ever committed to film (and I say this as a devoted fan of Call The Midwife). Kirby heaves and burps as waves of nausea overtake her, and cries out in pain as the contractions force her to retreat to the bathtub in pursuit of relief. In a sequence that’s both frantic and seemingly interminable, the camera follows her, Sean, and the midwife as they weave in and out of rooms, positions, and stages of labor. When Martha finally makes it onto the bed for the final push, complications ensue. The baby’s heartbeat is erratic and slow, and the midwife has to take emergency action to get it out quickly. Eventually, Martha gives birth to a girl and we as an audience breathe a sigh of release. But those brief moments of elation are cut short. Though the midwife contacted an ambulance, the EMTs don’t arrive in time. The baby dies in Martha’s arms as suddenly as it came into the world.
The film is a highly fictionalized version of a very personal event: the loss of Mundruczó and Weber’s own child. “I wanted to create what I felt when I was attending the birth,” Mundruczó told Refinery29 over Zoom ahead of Pieces of a Woman’s January 7 Netflix release. “As a father, you are not that far from a filmmaker’s standpoint, because you are an observer, but at the same time fully emotional in a situation that you cannot control.”
The home birth scene in particular represented an unprecedented filmmaking challenge: How could he translate a 30-page childbirth sequence into something that would feel dynamic and real on-screen?
“I was shocked, not just because of the length, but also because of the variety of emotions that I read there,” he said. “And also all of the layers and chapters inside that difficult labor. The question for me was how you can take a cinematic approach to make it believable?”
To add to the realism of the scene, Mundruczó chose to shoot the entire 23-minute scene in one take. In other words, we’re watching the entire birth, from beginning to end, with virtually no cuts. There’s no jumping around in time to emphasize one dramatic moment over a more quiet one. Instead, the audience goes through the rollercoaster along with the couple, which makes the tragic end result that much more gutting to behold.
“If we expand the field time and compress real time — for say a 14-hour labor — it became an artistic approach. Normally, you do jump cuts, to mark how time is passing, or you do a very artsy [take], like from just outside of the house. But if you want to feel it and want to be close, you don’t have [many options]. I really love that cinema, as an art form, is able to create a birth like that.”
Using a gimbal camera stabilizer — a tool normally used to shoot music videos — cinematographer Benjamin Leob was able to get up close and personal without the feeling of another person in the room. What’s more, the entire scene was blocked out and choreographed — meaning the actors knew, beat by beat, where they were supposed to be standing or how to place their bodies — but not rehearsed.
“We decided what, where, how, and talked through all of the chapters inside the sequence — this is about the phantom pain, this is about the joke, this is when you get bad news,” Mundruczó said. “But we never rehearsed deeply because we felt that if we went into the rehearsal process, we would lose something.”
Kirby, who is already getting well-deserved Oscar buzz for her work in this scene alone, told Harpers Bazaar that she shadowed an OB-GYN and watched a live birth in order to prepare for the role. The painstaking, brutal scene was the very first one that the cast and crew shot.
“I was very fatalistic that [Vanessa] needed this experience to continue the movie,” he said. “It was like an action scene: You have no other choice but to crash. She really started to cry after the fourth take, and it’s a moment I will never forget.”
“[I told her]: Don’t control yourself. Feel the scene, and give what you imagine,” Mundruczó added. “What’s amazing to me is that she’s never given birth and she created that scene. What’s that if not performing art?”
Although they shot six takes in all over two days, that raw, emotional fourth take is the one you see in the film.
“It’s not easy to find someone who would want to go to the dark places that this role needs, even if you discover lots of grace and love and strength,” Mundruczó said. “It’s a challenging journey. I was really grateful that Vanessa wanted to play this — she’s fearless!”