Pieces of a Woman
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó ◆ Written by Kata Wéber ◆ Produced by Bron Studios, Little Lamb, and Creative Wealth Media ◆ Distributed by Netflix
Promising Young Woman
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell ◆ Produced by FilmNation Entertainment and LuckyChap Entertainment ◆ Distributed by Focus Features
In the 1940s and ’50s a film subgenre commonly categorized as “weepies” became popular. These overly sentimental dramas usually starred Joan Crawford, June Allyson, or in a pinch, even the determinedly dry-eyed Barbara Stanwyck. Such films are not made as often today, as they’re out of step with the women’s liberation and #MeToo movements. It’s probably just as well; such films often provoked heartless male mockery.
Considered superficially, two recent films, Pieces of a Woman and Promising Young Woman, might be considered modern-day weepies. But both are much too grim to fit the bill. They foreclose uplifting endings that the earlier films delivered.
Pieces of a Woman is a fictionalized treatment of an actual ordeal suffered by the Hungarian married couple who made the film, scenarist Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó. They were devastated when their baby was stillborn and struggled to come to terms with their loss.
Vanessa Kirby, under the fictional name of Martha Weiss, plays Wéber. We first meet her as she enters the final stages of an unexpectedly troubled pregnancy. She and her husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), elected to bring their baby into the world via natural home birth. They read books on how to safely do this, hiring a professional doula for assistance. At the last minute they learn their doula has become unavailable because of a prior commitment to help another mother whose labor has started late.
So they call in another doula, but this woman isn’t prepared to deal with Martha’s difficulties. Nevertheless, Martha and Sean remain determined to have their baby at home. They’re sure they can manage it, but find they’re not capable, leaving Sean to call the hospital for assistance. Emergency service attendants arrive and offer to take Martha to the hospital, but she refuses.
The next 30 minutes of the film show Martha writhing and screaming in a depiction of 16 hours of agony. When the baby, a daughter, arrives, the infant is clearly in trouble. She’s not breathing and has turned blue. After another 10 minutes, it’s clear the child is stillborn. I’ve rarely seen anything so grim in a film.
I was in the operating room when my wife delivered all three of our children. The first, Jennifer, gave us considerable worry. We had read the books and attended Lamaze classes, so we were sure we could see our baby into the world “naturally.” Anne had even planned to forego anesthetic.
There came a point, two hours into her labor, when she looked up from her hospital bed and asked me to take her home. I knew then that we were in trouble. Once the contractions start, there’s no escape. Fortunately, three stout nurses had come to assist us and talked Anne through what was to come, convincing her to accept an epidural to ease her pain. They also took my measure and unceremoniously shooed me from the operating room.
Once Jennifer was born and out of danger, we realized how much we owed these efficient, no-nonsense women. But before we could thank them in person, they had gone.
Martha goes a few critical steps further than we did. Giving birth at home with an ill-prepared substitute doula, she’s more or less on her own. When she finally delivers her stillborn child, she’s devastated. Mundruczó doesn’t hide any of this real-life trauma. Afterward, Sean tries to comfort Martha but is so overcome himself that he leaves, giving the excuse that his new job demands he travel to Los Angeles.
Martha descends into despair. She’s counseled by professionals and friends who concur: she must regain her footing. Easier counseled than achieved.
Her plight is exacerbated by her mother (Ellen Burstyn) who was against the home birth from the start. She callously remarks that Martha would be holding her baby in her arms now, had she only listened to her mother’s advice and gone to the hospital when her labor began. Later, trying to rescue some meaning from her loss, Martha announces she will turn her baby’s corpse over to a university hospital for medical research. This thoroughly outrages her mother, who thinks the only way to deal with the catastrophe is to give the baby a proper funeral.
Pieces of a Woman is an extremely painful film to watch, and yet it is worth seeing. It’s a credit to Wéber and Mundruczó that they don’t hide this material but rather keep it directly before our eyes. Yes, it’s awful to watch, but that was clearly the goal. Fortunately, most women don’t have to undergo such distress, but quite a few do. I commend Wéber and Mundruczó for their determination not to avert their eyes—or ours.
Some have asked what Wéber and Mundruczó’s purpose was in making this film. I suspect they wanted to reacquaint their audience with the drama and potential trauma of childbirth, and address how to face these facts of life with clear-eyed courage.
If audiences had a clear-eyed view of the seriousness of the procreative process, perhaps there would be no need for Promising Young Woman, another recent film, one hailed as a feminist masterwork. It is that, only if we understand feminism to be a movement designed to take revenge on men for the crime of being male.
above: Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020, Focus Features)
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old promising medical student, has dropped out of school to embark on a plan to humiliate men for their swinish proclivities. To do so, she feigns extreme drunkenness at clubs and bars, giving every evidence she’s about to pass out. Men take notice and approach her with ostensibly gracious offers to drive her home.
The man typically drives her to his apartment instead and tries to seduce her despite her evident inebriation. These men are making what used to be called “indecorous advances on female virtue.” That such situations are no longer described this way may be part of the problem the film is supposedly exploring.
Once the man makes his move, Cassie suddenly drops her act and soberly asks the swain what he thinks he’s doing. Embarrassed, the fellow denies he has any untoward intentions and clumsily ushers Cassie out his door.
Cassie is proud of these little entrapments, keeping a list of the names of fellows she’s tricked. The film plays these encounters as if they were amusing, but they’re not. They’re obviously dangerous. Cassie risks being labeled a tease or, far worse, becoming a rape victim. The fellows, for their part, leave themselves open to whatever retaliation Cassie might use to endanger their reputations and welfare. In recent years, quite a few men have lost jobs, scholarships, and appointments due to charges against their sexual probity, whether true or false.
If any of this occurs to Cassie, she doesn’t show it. She has a higher calling she must satisfy: revenge. Her friend, Nina, got drunk at a party and a fellow had sex with her while others watched, laughed, and recorded the encounter. No one tried to protect her or stop what was in effect rape. Then the video circulated among those who were at the party and anyone else who wanted to see it. The shame was so unendurable that Nina killed herself.
In the wake of this awful business, Cassie decided to humiliate men, and worse. She’s all calculated congeniality on the surface while rage boils within. At another club, she glibly tells a would-be pick up that she knows women who, when out on the town, carry scissors in their handbags as a weapon, intimating that she does so herself.
Men and women have a long record of comic strife both in life and in movies. Howard Hawks’ peerless 1938 screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, for example, features Katherine Hepburn as a dedicated ditz determined to bewilder Cary Grant’s young fogey paleontologist into submission. Two leopards, one courteously tame and the other ferociously wild, portray the energy, danger, and romance of intersex competition.
In Promising Young Woman, all this frisson sours into malice. Cassie’s campaign against men turns from the romantic to the institutional when she returns to her medical school for a meeting with the dean. She wants to confirm her suspicion that the university favors male students. This is a bit of unintentional irony by the filmmaker, given that in reality the balance is shifting and women are now the majority in medical schools.
Not to mention, real universities are minefields for males. Nearly every month we read of male students brought before university tribunals on charges of sexual impropriety. They’re typically not afforded the opportunity to confront their accusers or even allowed legal representation. At stake is their reputation, which, if muddied, might mean dismissal from school, lost employment opportunities, and social humiliation.
Promising Young Woman seems to think of itself as a James Thurberesque account of the war between men and women. It’s rather a sulfurous grilling of men that plainly flies in the face of current reality.