A labour of love – “Pieces of a Woman” offers a tragic portrayal of childbirth | Prospero | The Economist
LONG TAKES are markers of a film-maker’s seriousness. The continuous shot, often focusing on a single character, is an opportunity for a director and an actor to put on a display of bravura. The technique rarely serves the story so much as demonstrates that it can be done. Television dramas with aspirations to the cinematic have boasted uncut takes longer than ten minutes.
Yet the 23-minute scene at the beginning of “Pieces of a Woman”, Kornel Mundruczo’s new film, has real power: it immerses the viewer in the joy, the pain, the moments of comedy and, in this case, the tragedy, of childbirth. Vanessa Kirby plays Martha, a successful young woman who is expecting her first child with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Martha and Sean attended antenatal classes and have opted for a home delivery. When she goes into labour, the routine begins. There are agonising contractions; a bath is run; exhortations to breathe and to push, the final screams of pain and effort.
This may sound familiar from other films, if not from personal experience, yet Kata Weber’s script goes beyond the stereotypical depictions of birth on screen. The birth plan goes awry, the couple’s chosen midwife is busy and so a replacement is sent in her stead. “This is super awful!” Martha howls. The infant dies soon after delivery. Mr Mundruczo and Ms Weber, fictionalising the loss of their own child, take time to show the episode in all its traumatic drama. In doing so, they have created one of the most realistic and moving depictions of childbirth on screen.
Many film-makers treat childbirth as an opportunity for over-the-top histrionics rather than as a grim and life-threatening process. “Nine Months” (1995), “The Women” (2008) and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (2012) include an array of panicked fathers-to-be, screaming mothers-to-be and health-care professionals ready with witty one-liners. The physical undertaking is played for laughs, as in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” (2007), which features an explicit shot of the baby crowning. The children usually emerge squalling but relatively clean and rosy-looking. ( “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” also explores a miscarriage alongside its anthology of sunnier comedy.)
Horror films frequently feature pregnancy and birth, too, perhaps as a means to acknowledge the fear and suffering involved. Whether it is the diabolical pregnancy in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) or the maggot in utero in “The Fly” (1986), giving birth is often the epitome of body horror. John Hurt’s memorable chest-bursting scene in “Alien” (1979) is a kind of demonic parturition and, in Ridley Scott’s prequel, “Prometheus” (2012), a self-administered cesarean section is performed by Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) in order to avoid a similar fate. Although not horrific in itself, the childbirth scene in “A Quiet Place” (2018) is designed to scare: the mother is unable to make a noise lest she attract alien monsters with extraordinarily sensitive hearing. In Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” (2017) Jennifer Lawrence’s tormented labour ushers in an apocalyptic scenario.
That childbirth is usually treated with giggles or gasps reflects how the subject was considered a taboo by Hollywood for decades. The Hays Production Code, which held sway in America from the late 1930s to well into the 1960s, discouraged the depiction of pregnancy and practically forbade the portrayal of childbirth. An unofficial guide to the code, published in 1937, stated: “It is entirely acceptable, of course, to refer to the baby that is expected, but any reference to conception, child-bearing and child-birth is considered improper for public discussion.” This meant that romance led to instant families with barely a bump along the way. A film as grand as “Gone with the Wind” (1939) might be able to defy the censors, but there were precious few pregnant women in those years and the “miracle of birth” was taken all too literally.
However, outside Hollywood things could be different. “A Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), Dziga Vertov’s revolutionary documentary, shows a birth in visceral detail. European auteurs, such as Carl Theodore Dreyer in “Ordet” (1955) and Ingmar Bergman with “Brink of Life” (1958), have addressed pregnancy and the loss of babies more candidly than have their American counterparts.
“Pieces of a Woman” continues this tradition. After the long take, the remainder of the film is an empathetic depiction of terrible loss. It is a film which will be justly remembered for a scene in which a woman giving birth is finally treated with the space, time and respect that it deserves.
“Pieces of a Woman” is streaming on Netflix now
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