Kornél Mundruczó’s ‘Pieces of a Woman’ Is a Harrowing Exploration of Loss and Grief

Art imitated life for Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber when the husband and wife team explored a taboo topic extremely personal to them — the grief that comes from losing a child. In their emotional new drama, “Pieces of a Woman,” Vanessa Kirby stars as Martha, a Boston native who loses her daughter minutes after the child is born at home. Beyond having to deal with her own private grief as she attempts to find a new normal, Martha has to navigate her changing relationship with her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), as well as the impending criminal trial of Eva (Molly Parker), the midwife being charged with negligence.

The story of “Pieces of a Woman” is a personal one for Mundruczó and Wéber, as the pair previously experienced a miscarriage. Shortly after, Mundruczó was looking for material for a new play when he came across some dialogue written by his wife. “It was between a mother and a daughter, and I was shocked,” he revealed to Entertainment Voice. “On the first level, because that was the most beautiful writing I had ever read by her, but on a second level, we had never talked about it, and those sentences really broke the silence.” With her husband’s encouragement, Wéber went on to expand her dialogues into a play that would eventually be adapted into a screenplay. “When I read it a couple of weeks later, I was in tears. What I discovered was not just the pain and the sorrow, but also the hope and the life and the love and the motherhood and the grace [surrounding] that topic. It was so shockingly, provokingly beautiful.”

“Pieces of a Woman” is the first English-language feature from Mundruczó, who shot the film in Quebec, Canada. “It’s just like sinking into the Atlantic Ocean,” he said of the experience with a laugh. “You are just between two lands, and that’s very dangerous, so creating a team and creating respect and trust with your team [is important] so that they are helping you understand what works and what doesn’t and how. I’m very grateful to our experts and producers who helped me create a real American movie.”

The film begins with Martha’s labor and home birth, a harrowing 24-minute sequence that sees her go through much physical and emotional distress and ends with her and Sean experiencing one of life’s greatest joys, only to experience their greatest sorrow moments later. Eva is their guide through what turns out to be a nightmarish ordeal. Outwardly serene and nurturing, her insistence that everything is fine until the last possible minute leads to the tragic outcome. All three actors are phenomenal here, and even more amazing is that Mundruczó, along with cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, shot the whole sequence in one take. Mundruczó explained that when it came to filming an experience as pure as childbirth, using jump cuts and the like felt unnatural. “We found that with this very fluid camerawork, we could be very close to Vanessa and what Vanessa’s feeling and what’s Vanessa’s longing for, an infinite love for the newborn. That was the concept.”

Kirby gives an award-worthy performance not just during the birth scene, but also afterwards as Martha struggles to deal with her emotional scars, as well as her physical trauma. After she is forced to return to work after a short maternity leave, she is still wearing postpartum panties, a harsh ordeal for any woman who has recently given birth, but even more agonizing for a woman who doesn’t have a baby to go home to. She is also expected to be different things to different people –– a loving, sexual partner to Sean, a fighter bent on justice to her mother, Elizabeth (a brilliant Ellen Burstyn), and a brave survivor to random family friends who accost her in convenience stores.

Mundruczó described working with Kirby as “very beautiful and challenging. She’s really an actress who needs a lot of attention, but she gives everything that she can. What was amazing with her was how close we worked together and how she [transformed] all of my words into a physical and emotional performance. And the role is very difficult, in that sense, because your major entity is isolation and longing for something that is not there, so you have two abstract struggles, and she did that beautifully.”

Meanwhile, LeBeouf gives an almost equally affecting performance as Sean grieves in his own way. While he didn’t go through the physical ordeal that Martha did, he is still deeply wounded by the loss of his daughter, whom he loved and doted on even before she was born. However, he is a harder character to sympathize with, especially after he pressures Martha into a sexual encounter before she is ready, and, later, engages in an affair with her cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), who is also their lawyer.

Mundruczó opened up about casting LeBeouf, as well as his feelings regarding the recent abuse accusations that have been levelled against the actor. “As a character, Sean is deeply troubled. He is struggling with addiction, and he’s kind of a misfit that Martha’s mother disapproves of, so I was looking for someone to represent that. At the same time, I was looking for an actor who was the opposite of Vanessa, but also could be strong enough to act at her level, so that’s why I chose him, but I am certainly very troubled about those accusations which have just popped up now. Honestly, they were hard to read, but I believe all humans should feel like they can come forward and tell their truths. I was really filled with sadness and sorrow when I read those accounts.”

The director went on to discuss one of the more intense scenes, one in which Sean pushes Martha for sexual contact before she is ready. “The set was a safe space and a very professional one established on trust and respect, so we were in constant communication in between the scenes with both of them. The scene is about someone who wants to go back, and someone who cannot go back, because she has been changed forever by loss. That was the heart of the scene. It fictionalized, that scene, the victims of real abuse and violence, and that’s [what we set out] to express in that scene.”

But the most poignant scene, after the childbirth, is one in which Marth argues with Elizabeth, a Holocaust survivor, about the upcoming criminal trial of Eva and Martha’s recent behavior. The scene, which is like a masterclass in acting, illustrates the sharp contrast between mother and daughter. While Elizabeth feels like Martha should be out for blood, it’s obvious that putting the midwife behind bars or receiving any sort of monetary compensation isn’t going to bring the younger woman peace. “It’s difficult to talk about her, because she is just perfect,” said Mundruczó of Burstyn. “She’s a legend. She’s everything. She’s the truth. She gave everything, and it was amazing to work with her.”

All of this leads to a powerful climax in which Martha stands up in a courtroom and finally speaks her truth. Here, we see how far she has come in the year since the birth, and while the emotional scars will probably always remain, we see that there is hope that she can live a happy life, something that is hinted at in the moving final shot of the film. “She’s really strong, and you feel that she became stronger through the whole journey,” said Mundruczó. “I think her life became normal… We did a huge amount of research and we did a crazy amount of interviews, and 50 percent or even more after a miscarriage or a stillbirth of mothers became mothers again, and that’s very promising.”

That renewal of hope for Martha is represented in the motif of apples. Throughout the year, we see her munching on apples, and at one point we see her start to collect seeds in the hope of planting them. In the beginning, it seems like a random fixation, but we eventually learn the touching connection between the fruit and Martha’s lost baby. “At least, you need something to represent the baby who is not there, and this tremendous longing and love,” explained Mundruczó when asked about the motif.

Finally, Mundruczó discussed what he hopes viewers take away from “Pieces of a Woman.” “From my point of view, I think the first thing is the female experience and the inner journey, which was about triumph over [Martha’s] grief and [her becoming] a stronger person…. But on a second level, and a more personal level, when we started the project, we broke our silence, and if we can break the silence of other couples who have experienced this movie, and the audience starts to talk about it and even discover their stories, that would be an amazing thing for us.”

Pieces of a Woman” releases Dec. 30 in select cities and begins streaming Jan. 8 on Netflix.