Pieces of a Woman premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale to enthusiastic expectations even though critics were divided in opinions of Kornél Mundruczó’s previous feature, Jupiter’s Moon, at Cannes 2017, that was also scripted by partner Kata Wéber. His latest is, however the Hungarian festival darling’s English-language debut, star-studded with Vanessa Kirby as a fulminating lead, rightly rewarded with the Volpi cup for Best Actress on the Lido.
Kirby plays Martha, a young, loved soon-to-be-mother from the Boston middle class, who, after an emotionally devastating home birth scene, remains an almost-mother. Kirby masterfully navigates amidst unspoken grief, passive-aggressive hurt, and immense love for her lost child— her acting has never been more subtle and confident, and that is what fleshes out Wéber’s script and imbues it with cinematic empathy. Adorned by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, Martha’s body and gestures resonate with the audience more deeply than her lines.
The script has chiseled solid characters from both protagonists (Labeouf has worked impressively hard on his determined and largely abusive role of husband Sean) and secondary characters. Molly Parker plays a midwife in the film’s most intense sequences, her face never twitching but her eyes encompassing all the world’s empathy. A bright cameo from Benny Safdie also contributes to a mosaic of human interactions that reflect but ultimately fragment the titular woman in pieces. Playwright and scriptwriter Kata Wéber talks to SQ about Pieces of a Woman, from the page to the screen, from Hungarian to English, from apples to bridges.
Savina Petkova: For Pieces of a Woman, you share credits with Kornél Mundruczó. In what ways has this reflected on your involvement and work prior to the film’s premiere?
Kata Wéber: We’ve collaborated many times in the past, my husband [Mundruczó] and I. We’ve known each other for 21 years, so there have been many different avenues of doing that. At first, I met him as an actress, and when I started writing, we then collaborated in a theatre setting, on plays and dramaturgy. But with this one, it was really a shared experience before all, and we wanted this to be reflected in the credits because I was there on all the shooting days and I kind of got more involved in the process [of shooting] than I’ve usually done so in the past. I also think it’s a generous gesture from Kornél as he wanted to share the credits, feeling that Pieces of a Woman is ultimately a film made from a feminine perspective that really talks about a woman’s experiences. I think it’s also his way of showing that he never wanted to take over the story or pose his view on it – how this character is to be seen.
Every frame of the film testifies to your perspectives, intertwined, especially since you already worked on the source material of the screenplay for the stage. What was the specific thing about Pieces of a Woman that made it so suitable for an English-language debut?
Well, the theatre play premiered long ago [December 2018 in Warsaw, Poland] but this topic remained really important for us because of a harsh trial case against a Hungarian midwife, which felt like a taboo. This taboo is indeed something we have to talk about, we have to break the silence around it, even if people had very strong opinions on the case – you know, home birth advocates versus doctors, pointing fingers at each other to catch the guilty one. We just felt like we had to talk about it and Kornél encouraged me to write the theater play (later on, also the film script). When I started to deal with this topic, we understood that there was a strictly personal layer there, something that we haven’t talked about between us, that allowed me to dig deeper and deeper. I think that this was also a little bit like therapy for me and for us, to write this out. Still, we never thought of it as an English-speaking movie. We first tried to make it in Hungarian but got rejected, so it was only after we’d shown the translation to some people that were curious about it, that we thought we could share the project with a wider audience. Of course, adapting a story to fit another national culture, it’s a long road, and it involves a lot of work with a lot of experts, trying to uncover what’s going to stay from the story: you lose many factors in this translation but you also gain something; you find what’s universal about your story. So during this process of moving and translating –from Hungary to Poland to the USA– it became clear what the story is about, in a universal way.
If I can come back to your analogy between writing and therapy, or writing as a labour of love, do you sometimes feel like there’s some leftover to be dealt with, something lingering or lost in the trail of translation and adaptation, from your thoughts to page to screen?
Yes, but the whole process was so crucial to me to be able to understand the importance of finding my own voice, and furthermore – regaining control over my own story and my body. I had to understand this process of me putting words in the mouth of a character but also at the same time expressing my own thoughts, you know? What’s the problem with that? The problem is that a woman’s body is her own, no one can take it over, not the state, nor the hospital, or a husband, or a trial, no one can take it away. So this kind of feeling, this particular confidence, I think, I gained from understanding my connection to the story and also other women’s experiences. Researching, I read a lot and I did talk to many who had lost their babies, heard a lot of testimonies, many of which showed how isolated these women can feel. It’s quite hard to break this 100-years old consensus about what’s the appropriate way to grieve, and how a woman should deal with loss. In a way, writing was about breaking the silence all around this, while finding my own words to do that with.
I strongly agree with you that a discussion about female grief and loss is very much at stake but what struck me in the film was the lack of actual conversation about those challenging subjects. There are monologues, gestures, solitude, even a courtroom examination, all instead of a more conventional type of dialogue. What was your work with Vanessa Kirby like, since her performance conveys the undeniable urgency you alluded to?
The whole point of the script was to show the world, as perceived from the perspective of the one who’s lost. So it was very important for the film not to be a domestic drama, rather one about the inner life of someone with a complicated grieving process, her inner life both beautiful and graceful, with a magnetic feeling of love towards someone who’s not there anymore. And we [with Kornel, with Vanessa]’ve talked so much about how this shouldn’t be this kind of conventional harsh drama but … maybe yes, a harsh drama interwoven with something else, something that feels otherworldly. In the script, the presence of the baby is felt at all times, so the way it was portrayed in the film had to be a consequence of this train of thought. It’s Martha’s perspective from beginning to end – she doesn’t want to move on, since for her, moving on would mean betraying her child and for me, it was really meaningful to hear from all these women, the way they talked about their babies in the most beautiful way, while wanting to find legacy for their children. They did talk about loss but never in a darker tone, it was always tinted with longing, this connection. I also think that some moments for Vanessa [Kirby], like holding the apple, or walking down the street – it’s a different kind of walking because she’s always with someone, she’s never alone.
The way the film’s shot also reflects what you’re describing: Benjamin Loeb resorts to many shots from a distance, seeing Kirby walking by herself, standing in the back of a room, or even squatting on the toilet seat –
Yeah, Benjamin was so amazing, and his idea to use a gimbal to convey an otherly experience too.
When I first saw the film in Venice, I was so impressed by the long take birth sequence [circa 30 minutes of screen time]. It nested in my mind up until the point when my memory tricked me into believing that’s the opening scene, which is false – there are two other scenes that set the mood and introduce the characters first. I was wondering, when writing, did you have this scene in mind as a central one, and how important it was to have a preview of the characters before that seismic scene?
I remember that was a big debate, if we should start right from the birth scene, or have some little moments with the characters beforehand. I voted for the latter. I don’t really remember what my argument was like but it must have been something about establishing normality before exposing the big problems behind it. That’s why preparation is needed. But of course, the giving birth scene is the longest one and the strongest. It’s like that for a reason – because you have to know the lost one – and you’d never feel that kind of an emotional connection, the one you just mentioned. Yes, you perfectly described what we wanted to do, as this connection is possible only if the audience goes through the same process as Martha, and you then remember how much labour was put into bringing this baby to the world. And then, losing it is everything. You lose everything in that moment, together with Martha, and I think that’s important in order to understand the aftermath of a tragedy like this.
Absolutely, and this sequence is also a triumph for the on-screen representation of childbirth because the audience gets to experience time in a radically different way than what most films or TV series do – just use a simple cut to signify the baby was born – and of course, this is one of the functions of a continuous long take. One also feels soaked into the corners of the room, gets intimate with the objects and furniture, the architecture of a home.. Did you think of it as a long take, while writing the script?
Well, the scene was almost 30 pages in the script. Although I didn’t envision it as a long take, I remember thinking that it should definitely be very, very massive. It should be both glorious, full of grace but also horror – I wanted to give a truthful expression to this experience. You’re right, giving birth is something that films tend to distance themselves from a truthful representation. But without it, how can you then watch what happens after the birth, how can you understand the love Martha feels in the loss? It’s not possible.
Speaking of the set and the props, the camera pays a lot of attention to objects, such as water glasses, dishes piling up while Martha and Sean’s relationship disintegrates, the plants dying – the mise-en-scene mirroring a struggle between the main characters as they try to cope with the death of a child. Was your writing in the script just as detailed, or was this something you manifested together with the production design team?
Both but I think a lot of the elements were already present in the script. For example, the frozen pea bags she puts on her breasts to stop lactating, the apples, the seeds she grows – all those tiny bits I had. Also, the film covers a big timespan, so you have to express time passing, right? The plants in the apartment provide an easy way to show how they haven’t been watered for a long time, you know? All those things spring from the logic of the script too but of course the production design and the people around us in the making of the film were so helpful and professional. They were also very respectful to the topic, I was truly amazed by the effort of every department.
Maybe we can finish off with a suitable metaphor. Very early in the film, Martha’s mother [Ellen Burstyn] jokingly asks Sean [Shia Labeouf], who is a bridge construction worker, “How can you build a bridge if you cannot tell time?” I found this line quite poignant as an observation about the interlaced nature of time and space, and also a prelude to the many months that will pass as the film unfolds. A title card announces what month it is on numerous occasions, its background overlooking the bridge being built across the river. How did this conjunction of time and bridges come into mind?
I wanted to be truthful to a person’s grieving process. There’s this understanding in the Jewish tradition that you need at least 11 months to grieve, so I wanted to be truthful to that. And the title, Pieces of a Woman, too, occurred to me very early on. Maybe it’s also connected to the fact that the theater play is composed of two scenes – the birth scene and the dinner scene – and the time elapsed between the two. I do like a fractured structure because it leaves space for your imagination and you’re always expecting something while something else happens – it keeps up with your curiosity. The bridge is, of course, a metaphor, but I wanted to express the spiritual connections we have with people who are not here. I think it’s surprising how people who are not there can actually affect our lives, sometimes even more profoundly, than the ones we live with – it happens. For me, bridges are beautiful, I admire them as an invention so much, you know, building bridges is amazing, how can you even come up with this, let alone do it? It connects lands, territories… I felt like that sentiment was very much present in the story, our different kinds of connections to people.
Pieces of a Woman is available to stream on Netflix now
by Savina Petkova
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova