In the filmmaker’s arsenal, the extended single shot is a strong tool. The single shot requires the audience’s unwavering engagement without the punctuation of a cut or the breather of an angle.
It’s grabbing us by the neck and never letting go.
It’s a system that is exploited at least as much as it’s used efficiently: There’s the swanky spring of something like Birdman for any fast-paced, kinetic action sequence from Children of Men. But rarely have I seen a single shot at the beginning of Kornél Mundruczó’s Parts of a Woman used as compellingly as the 23-minute series. Hours of labor; Martha’s (the incredible Vanessa Kirby) and Sean’s (Shia LaBeouf) baby’s traumatic home birth; the way time compresses and expands with each contraction; the devastating, blunt force of the catastrophe that occurs shortly after birth: all of it is distilled into one woozy, disoriented, cordless umbilical clip. If I announce that the film is about the death of a newborn, it’s not a spoiler: its seismic effect on life; the impossibility in the aftermath of making sense of it all.
It is a topic to which Mundruczó (White God) and his writer and wife Kata Wéber have a personal connection, evident in the deft balancing of the banal yet almost unbearable specifics between a compassionate approach and an unflinching eye.
In the days following the death of her daughter to block the awful compassion of family and friends, information like the way Martha, though withdrawn into herself, her body betrays her. Milk is still pouring from her breasts, and her gait is still the uncomfortable waddle of a pregnant woman.
Every jagged sliver of Kirby’s phenomenal performance is captured by a camera that hovers like a detached soul clinging to Martha. The film has a keen sense of the impact of bereavement on others. A child’s loss is an agonizing thing; the loss of a newborn is literally incomprehensible, after the raw, animalistic rush of birth and the surge of love at first sight.
Most people are disheartened – as she returns to work, Martha’s work colleagues are horrified and mute.
Yet others are attracted to her, an unsettling hijacking of sorrow beautifully illustrated in a meeting with her mother’s acquaintance. The woman shows sympathy and imposes a talc-scented embrace on Martha, whose face is a scream barely contained…. Martha is now an overachiever who has always surpassed others’ standards, finding herself at odds with her loved ones over the “proper” way to process her grief.
And there are comparisons to Eva Trobisch’s All Is Well, a film about a woman seeking to reconcile her trauma with her own positive self-image, which is also on Netflix.
Sean just wants the old Martha back and feels the punishment of her cool withdrawal from him. Hurt, he has his addictions rekindled.
The performance of LaBeouf is haunting and forms the movie, even in moments of restraint. Ellen Burstyn delivers a tour de force of souped-up toxicity as Martha’s overbearing mother.
She finds survival to be the supreme act of resistance, as a Jewish woman whose mother gave birth to her under Nazi occupation.
And although it is not specifically mentioned, she suggests that it is also a kind of loss to lose her daughter. A showcase for the glowing cast and for the excellent script that nurtures them is the dinner collision between the judgment of the mother and the indignation of the daughter.