It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it creates what we call "the magic of cinema". Bringing to life characters that simply didn't exist before a writer conjured them up requires a unique mix of individual pursuit of brilliance, but also a jugalbandi of skill, daring and commitment with others. A director who can imagine and create it, an actor who can make us believe in it, a cinematographer who captures it and an editor who eventually decides what we see, how, when, and for how long.
No matter how well one of them does, creating that magic depends on what everyone does.
Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's first English language film Pieces of A Woman, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) on Saturday, strives for that kind of brilliance and achieves in a bravura sequence that comes barely six minutes into the film and goes on for almost 24 minutes.
Based on a screenplay by Kata Webber, Pieces of A Woman is set in Massachusetts, US, where Martha (Venessa Kirby), a slim, chic executive, and her construction worker husband Shaun (Shia LaBeouf) have planned a home birth for their first child. They have bought a baby-friendly car, a room with a crib is ready, and the midwife has been booked.
September 17. There is slight chill in the air. Winter is coming. And so is the baby.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s long, intimate sequence, shot by a hand-held camera, stays with Martha for the entirety of the birth of her baby. It starts with mild contractions, her water breaking, the contractions increasing and a replacement midwife turning up.
In this sequence, where there are few, carefully-concealed cuts, the camera stays close to Martha as a helpless Shaun tries his best to be of some use. It zooms in when Martha needs a hand to squeeze and steps back as she gets delirious with pain and says she smells something rotten.
We feel as if we too are attached to her, bobbing around Martha gently in amniotic fluid along with her baby. Your hair will stand on its end when Martha screams in pain, her veins popping out as she tries to push the baby out.
This visceral look at what childbirth entails for a woman, eager and desperate to eject a piece of herself, is just the beginning of change — of Martha’s body and emotions.
Venessa Kirby, most well-known for playing Princess Margaret in Netflix's Crown, is stripped of all veneer of glamour and even dialogue in Pieces of A Woman as she has to first let a child rip through her, and then cradle a tragedy that keeps taking her apart, bit by bit.
Kirby carries this destruction, this loss in her body, in her silence, in her inability to tolerate even the most loving and benign of touches. They all feel as if they are taking a bite of her broken pieces.
While Martha is pretending to live, a media and court room drama is playing out. But Martha is keeping everything and everybody at an arm’s length. Her mother, Elizabeth (played with flinty self-assurance and infuriating interference by Ellen Burstyn), won’t have it. In the film's second most powerful scene, Elizabeth tells her own story, and the film again takes Martha apart so that she can piece herself back together.
Though it's too early to tell, but for now my prediction is that the next Oscar for best performance female will go to Venessa Kirby. And I won’t be surprised if Ellen Burstyn stands smiling next to her, holding her own golden knight.