Column: After losing a child, ‘Pieces of a Woman’ filmmakers channeled their grief into art
Every film is filigreed with the fingerprints of its creators — sometimes faint, sometimes overwhelming tracings of unique visions and experiences pulled together to create a whole.
In some very rare cases, those fingerprints are not so much filigree as foundation, thrust so deep into the film’s essence that they are all but invisible.
So it is with “Pieces of a Woman,” which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and became available Thursday for streaming on Netflix. In their English-language debut, Hungarian filmmakers Kata Wéber and Kornél Mundruczó tell the story of a home birth gone terribly wrong, a newborn’s death that leads to grief, blame, betrayal and, in the case of the midwife, criminal charges.
Much has been made of Vanessa Kirby’s Oscar-worthy performance as Martha, a woman whose devastating loss sends her on a journey of pain and self-revelation. Ellen Burstyn, who plays Martha’s mother — a Holocaust survivor who has her own deep and adversarial relationship with grief — has also, deservedly, been singled out for awards-season admiration. Indeed, in many cases, critics offered high praise for these performances amid more general declarations of disappointment with the film.
Not to detract in any way from Kirby’s remarkable performance, but I have never wanted to scream the WGA’s mantra “Somebody wrote that” louder or more often than while reading such highly specific raptures. In the end, “Pieces of a Woman,” with all its glories and flaws, belongs to its makers, writer Wéber and director Mundruczó, because it is their story. So much so that it is impossible to imagine “Pieces of a Woman,” with its brutal insistence on emotional reality even at the cost of narrative coherence, coming from anyone else. Not just because they are married partners who suffered a similar loss, but also because they are married filmmakers willing to examine the differing truths and defenses of their own experience through art. To push themselves and each other hard enough to crack their experience open in an attempt to reveal the nature of grief itself. Which, despite our individual and collective attempts, cannot be controlled by emotional rigor or the traditional rungs of storytelling.
Kornél Mundruczó's English-language debut is an uneven but lacerating portrait of grief.
As the film itself does, the creation of “Pieces of a Woman” began with a loss. Wéber and Mundruczó, who have two children, have chosen not to share the details beyond that their experience was not exactly the same as Martha and Sean’s. But it was a shared tragedy that left much grief in its wake — grief that husband and wife experienced very differently. Which Mundruczó did not realize until he came upon something Wéber had written, a conversation between a woman and her mother.
“As a couple, after the loss, we do not talk about it,” he says in a Zoom interview with Wéber from their home in Budapest. “It was really surrounded by lots of silence. Then I found in her notebook a couple of fragments of dialogue. I read that and it was completely shocking. I see the female perspective around this and I understand that our silence is absolutely active. It is not like, ‘OK, we have moved on’ and that is why we are not talking about it. It is almost the opposite.”
At the time, Mundruczó had been asked to do a play for a theater in Poland. The couple had been searching for a project, and he became convinced it should be an extension of this dialogue.
“There was this urgency [in the writing], like when you are starting to write something for no reason, you don’t have a deadline or a project,” he says. “Those fragments were definitely like a therapy type of writing.”
Wéber said at the time that she would try — but “I don’t guarantee anything.”
She started to think about anchoring the story as an exploration of who owns a woman’s body — who is responsible in matters surrounding birth, what is the mother’s role or duty. “In Hungary there was a trial involving a midwife,” she says. “It was huge here, and so emotional that no one can talk about it in a pragmatic way. Doctors against midwives, liberals against conservatives; it really tore the country apart. So we decided to make a personal story but underneath are all these questions.”
The character of Martha, she says, came directly from one of the mothers at the trial. “She said [the midwife] did everything possible for my child and I don’t want to blame her for my loss. It felt to me like the statement of a hero, ending the revenge culture, taking back her own body and sending a message that you cannot control everything in life, that there is a place for acceptance. This was very important for me to say,” Wéber adds, “especially with my experience. That your child brings love into this world and not something else.”
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Wéber went to Berlin to research and write. “At first I felt I could not do it, I was too connected. But Kornél encouraged me and I went to Berlin so I was totally away.”
“It was forbidden for me to call you,” Mundruczó interjects.
“Yes, that was hard,” Wéber says. “Being away from the kids was hard, but I had to struggle with these feelings and they were very dark. That was the reason we could not talk about it; it was not a comfortable place to go.”
“When I start to talk to you about this, you would tell me, ‘You cannot understand,’” Mundruczó says. “You said, ‘It is so far out, so deep, so dark, I could not talk.’”
The play that emerged, also called “Pieces of a Woman,” combined live performances on screens and sets and premiered at TR Warszawa in Warsaw in February 2019. The response was overwhelmingly positive, both critically and personally. After many performances, women would approach the two, thanking them and sharing their own stories.
“They would ask, ‘How did you make such a Polish story?’” Wéber recalls, laughing, “and I don’t know what they are talking about. ... It was not about Poland. But they have a lot of questions around who owns the woman’s body, who is responsible [in birth], and so many women there had not been able to talk about their own experiences.”
The response was so emotional and universal that Mundruczó began to think about approaching other producers, including in the American film community.
“When the women came to us,” he says, “I felt like in breaking our own silence we had also broken a larger silence.”
Adapting the play to film was almost as challenging as writing the play in the first place, Wéber says, though for more logistical reasons. The pair, who met at university, have worked together on many projects since — but “Pieces of a Woman” is their first English-language film and differs wildly from their previous projects: “White God,” which won Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and “Jupiter’s Moon,” which screened in the festival’s official competition in 2017. “Our other films were very conceptual,” Wéber says. “This was much more personal.”
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The story is so universal that “Pieces of a Woman” could have been a French movie or a German movie — but when the couple signed on with Bron studios, it became an American movie, which meant they had to figure out where it could take place. It came down to demographics, and they decided on Boston. “We needed a place where home birth was still an issue,” Wéber says, “where there was a class divide, and a Jewish community.”
Part of a Holocaust-surviving family, Wéber wanted to restore that theme, which she had excised for the Poland production. “I wanted a family where survival is a big issue, and the way the mother processed trauma did not help her daughter. That strong, powerful, ‘fight your way out, move forward’ attitude doesn’t always help.”
“It’s very strange,” Mundruczó says. “It is such a small movie, really. I would have thought that our first English-language film would have been big genre. I love the miracles of the technical; there are no technical miracles here.”
Which isn’t quite true — if you consider a continuous and harrowing shot of a home birth technically miraculous, “Pieces of a Woman” has its technical miracles. But it is a messy film, structurally and emotionally. A film not so much to be dissected as to be experienced. And those are the fingerprints you cannot see — the deep impressions of personal experience that can only be felt.
“It is very liberating,” Wéber says of bringing their private loss, transformed and retold, to the screen. “You feel relieved you can talk about it. This inner life, this magnetic longing for this child who is always there even if she is not there. There are so many ways to grieve, and we need to allow people to do that.”
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