“There are certain questions I can’t answer.”
I tell my students to look out for figurative comparisons that help the filmmaker navigate deeper themes and ideas. Once uncovered, these ‘visual aids” help the viewer arrive at a greater appreciation of the subject matter. There are three types, motifs, symbols and metaphors. They’re found in literature as well. Symbols draw attention to themselves; they’re very noticeable and their interpretation is up to you to unlock. The first time I saw “Pieces of a Woman” (2020), directed by Kornél Mundruczó and written by his wife Kata Weber, I was so entranced by Vanessa Kirby’s pulverizing performance–which earned her a thoroughly deserved nomination for Oscar Best Actress–that it wasn’t until a second viewing that I noticed two comparisons that provide such great insights into the characters as well as the film. At a lawyer’s office that the husband visits there’s a painting of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge which famously collapsed, attracting the attention of engineers, physicists and mathematicians. At the time it was the third-longest suspension bridge in the US, and its crumpling was due to mechanical resonance. Why is this mentioned to us in the middle of a movie about a mother trying to overcome the tragic loss of her child? That’s the type of thinking I encourage my students to use.It turns out Sean, her boyfriend (the father), is in bridge construction and his knowledge is relevant. He explains, “sometimes resonance can be so powerful it can bring the whole bridge down.” The bridge, its collapse, and the idea of resonance are an allegorical way to see the relationships in the story. The death of the baby and the mother’s grief has affected not just her but everyone around her.
Martha (Kirby) is seen in close up smelling a green apple at a store. Later on we see her eating it on a train, and her picking and studying one of its seeds between her fingers. Soon after, she goes to a bookstore and, when asked if she needs any help, she requests a book on sprouting, the process wherein seeds or spores germinate or already established plants produce new leaves. Apples appear throughout the narrative, sometimes seen oxidizing. Sean notices part of one on the kitchen island and asks her if she is going to eat that. This recurring symbol reminds us of her offspring, her passing, the mother’s trauma and how to overcome. It also serves as a hopeful sign.
In the first thirty minutes we watch the homebirth, and it’s a galvanizing scene. It all takes place in the apartment of Martha and Sean, and once her contractions start they call their midwife who is unable to be there and sends Eve in her stead. It’s done in a single take lasting twenty-four minutes, meaning that there are no cuts or edits. We’re aware of time and the monumentality of what is happening. We’re tethered to it. This approach makes us focus on the range of emotions that Martha experiences during the delivery, from euphoria to sheer fear. It makes us invested in what is happening. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb uses a Gimbal, a device that allows a small digital camera to rotate smoothly along its axis. We get the feeling that we’re floating in close proximity to what is occurring, following the actors from room to room. And this is where I take a leap: there’s a spiritual connection that this brings, as if the soul of the baby is floating around them. Regardless, it’s one of the most intense beginnings of a film, and Mundruczo, after this long interval, brings in the title of the film. You will need that pause.
There are two spectacular scenes that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the virtuosity of the beginning. There’s a moment in which Sean and Martha attempt to reignite their intimacy and there’s so much that the camera captures in their physicality. Now we’re removed and we observe from outside their bedroom, the door framing them. And there’s the dinner scene about two thirds in, when Martha’s mother has invited the extended family for a roast duck. Five months have passed, and it’s the first time that Martha and Sean have been out. Martha walks around the different rooms, feeling alienated, and witnessing in a disconnected way as others mingle and make small talk, displaying an ocean of unspoken feelings. It’s a nine minute scene that appears also to be one take, which culminates in Martha exploding and getting into a skirmish with Elizabeth, her overbearing mother, a holocaust survivor who wants her daughter to get on with her life. “Speak your truth,” says Elizabeth in a very tricky monologue that Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn makes look easy. It’s an unforgettable exchange done by two powerhouse performers.
Which brings me to Kirby. It’s a miraculous and committed work, recalling the go-for-broke rawness of Gena Rowlands. She expresses so much in her physicality, and then when she is still you still feel the emotions brewing in her. Mundruczo shoots her encased in the glass of her office elevator, or through the glass of a department store display, or through the reflection of a car window. It reminds us of the fragility of life.
Martha: “Distract me with something.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Written by Kata Wéber
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails and Ellen Burstyn
Director Kornél Mundruczó on Bringing “Pieces of a Woman” to the Screen
“I was working on something that was quite lonely. In the end, it wasn’t coming together. I still wanted to do something, so why not do which is the closest to me. And then I felt the urgency. If you want to make your English debut and tell a story that you have to pitch as, “Hey guys, there’s a 30-minute birth scene, and at the end, the baby dies. Do you want to make it?” That is just a collection of a crazy amount of “no’s.” But then we found the right partners. I wanted to sing my song, even if I had to change the culture and perspective, from Eastern European to America… Our story is not the same as in the movie, but we do have an experience with an unborn child. What I recognized was the silence. Four months, half-year, we don’t talk about it. It was just something’s happened, and it’s not coming up. But I felt that it wasn’t good. In her [Kata Wéber] notebook, I saw a couple of dialogues about this, and it was between a mother and a daughter. I was like, “Wow, this is so strong. Please write about it.” It was a little bit of therapy, and there is a healing process through art for us…I wanted to tell a story of a woman learning to live alongside loss. An experience like this can sometimes reach beyond the threshold of understanding, so the vision was to explore the ripple effect of a tragedy like losing a child and how one continues —because you are never the same after that. Art can be therapeutic, very healing, and telling this story of a woman, of a family inspired by real-life, we hope can heal…” (variety.com)
Screenwriter Kata Wéber on “Pieces of a Woman”
“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.” (screen-queens.com)
Actor Vanessa Kirby on the Role of Martha
When Kirby received the script, she had never read anything like it and certainly had never seen it portrayed on screen before. “It felt like a total journey of female courage,” Kirby tells Variety, explaining that the film “gives a voice to a subject that is so often silenced and so rarely spoken about.” In preparation for her role, Kirby spent time with many women who had been through losing a baby at many different stages, whether throughout pregnancy or just after they’re born. She also watched a woman give birth in real life, which she says changed her life forever. “Watching her do that, seven hours, it was like the most powerful act that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Kirby says with her jaw dropped. “She had to surrender everything and just let her body do it and become so primal and so animal and let that innate wisdom and intelligence take over and run the show. Even though she was in the most amount of pain she’s ever been in her life, something beautiful was happening. It taught me that pain can sometimes lead to something beautiful, and sometimes just getting through it and having the strength to.”… Kirby believes her character has a tough time speaking about her experience because society doesn’t talk enough about miscarriage and child loss, despite the staggering statistics.
“54% of people have been through it or know someone who has been through it,” Kirby shares from her research for the role. “That very female experience just felt like something that was really important, and I’m really proud to be a small part of that conversation.” Kirby hopes that this film will add to the growing conversation surrounding miscarriages, which have recently been illuminated by Teigen, who shared her heartbreaking story about suffering pregnancy loss while carrying her third child, and Markle, who penned a piece in November, revealing she had a miscarriage this summer. Earlier this week, “The Hills” star Whitney Port revealed she suffered her second miscarriage. “I think it’s so brave of them to do so,” Kirby says about Teigen and Markle. “When I read the article that Meghan had written, I felt so connected to them somehow, and I felt so in awe of their bravery. Someone told me that the reaction to Chrissy was really mixed. Some people found it really hard and didn’t want to know about it, and that indicates it’s a subject that’s so hard to talk about.” “From the women I spoke to, so many of them describe how lonely their experience is,” Kirby continues. “In sharing pain and sharing grief, when you feel totally alone, the act of sharing it or the act of someone reaching out or the act of someone saying, ‘I understand and I see you and I remember what it’s like and I know what it’s like,’ I think that’s why it’s so important that women like them speak up publicly. And I really hope this little movie, as difficult as it is to watch — because it is difficult, it’s the most difficult subject — I really hope that [it helps] one woman out there who feels left alone in their experience.” (variety.com)
Vanessa Kirby on Her Research for the Role of Martha
Kirby, who isn’t a mother in real life, says she watched a woman give birth in order to study to play the character. “I actually had this real privilege of watching someone do it for real. She allowed me to be there with her,” she tells Entertainment Tonight, adding that observing the delivery “changed me completely.” “I saw how powerful women are,” she says. “This incredibly primal act of creation, it’s so sacred, and I was just completely blown away. I never could have acted it without her.” The British actress tells The New York Times that witnessing the stranger’s labor, which lasted six hours, happened by chance while she was consulting doctors at a hospital in London. The woman showed up in labor and agreed to let Kirby stand by. “Every second of what was happening to her, I just absorbed,” she tells The Times, who adds that she “didn’t want to let women down” with her portrayal and “realized that I had a responsibility to show birth as it is, not as it’s even edited in documentaries.” Describing what she witnessed, Kirby says the woman’s “body was taking over and doing it, so that helped me so much for the scene” — a scene that, according to The Times, was completed in six run-throughs over two days of production. “Whenever I see a pregnant woman now, or someone’s telling me that they’ve just given birth, I smile. I feel with them,” says the actress. (people.com)
About Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb
Benjamin Loeb is a Norwegian/Canadian cinematographer currently living in Vancouver, Canada. In 2011 he completed his Bachelor degree at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. Emily Carr focused its education on the artistic and conceptual development, which largely informed Benjamin’s ideology when it comes to cinema. After graduating Benjamin continued working in industry and quickly built a reputation shooting commercials, music videos, and narrative projects around the world. Since his graduation he has lived in Oslo, New York, and Reykjavik. In 2016, he photographed the feature film ‘Hello Destroyer’ which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was named one of the best Canadian films of the decade by the Toronto Film Scene. Benjamin is represented by WME in North America, and by LUX in Europe and the rest of the world. He is also a member of the Norwegian Cinematographers Association. (welum.com)
About Screenwriter Kata Wéber
Upon graduating from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Kata began her career working in theatre, eventually becoming a playwright. Her theatre pieces have been shown in Poland (The -Bat, TR Warsawa ), Germany (My Sweet Haiti, Schauspiel Hannover), Switzerland (Hotel Lucky Hole, Schauspielhaus Zurich) and Hungary (Dementia, Imitation of Life), picking up various awards along the way. During these years, she began working for Proton Cinema and started collaborating with writer/director Kornel Mundruczo. Their first film together, WHITE GOD, won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2014 and had its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Her original feature JUPITER’S MOON premiered in competition at Cannes in 2017. Her latest feature PIECES OF A WOMAN was selected for Venice International Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival 2020. Vanessa Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice and has just been Oscar-nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. (unitedagents.co.uk)
About Director Kornél Mundruczó
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó was born in 1975. He is one of Hungary’s young, progressive directors, described by film critics as initiators of the New Wave in Hungarian, as well as in European film. His first feature-length film was “Pleasant Days,” which won a Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in 2002. Mundruczó’s next film was “Johanna” premiered at Cannes 2005 in 2005. DELTA followed in 2008 and also was premiered in Cannes. (FIPRESCI award, Don Quixote Award at Cottbus, CICAE award at the 14th Sarajevo Film Festival, the Golden Reel for Best Film at the 2008 Hungarian Film Week, the Gene Moskowitz award for best film by the foreign critics…) Mundruczó’s film “Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project” was also a part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Competition Programme in 2010 and it won the Special Jury Award at the 16th Sarajevo Film Festival… Kornél Mundruczó’s short films are just as successful. Some of them include “The Little Apocrypha No. 2” (aired in Cannes in 2002 – Cinefondation Section), “Little Apocrypha No. 1,” “Joan of Arc on the Night Bus” (Director’s Fortnight – Cannes 2003), “Afta – Day After Day,” Lost and Found” – “Short Lasting Silence.” Mundruczó is also very successful in theatre, directing on stage since 2003. His plays, some of which include “The Ice,” “Frankenstein Project,” “Hard to Be a God,” Judasevangelium,” “Eszter Solymosi of Tiszaeszlar,” are played at Hungarian theatres as well as all over the world, and have won many awards at the international theatre festivals. He has been a member of the European Film Academy since 2004. (sff.ba)