“Pieces of a Woman” marks the English-language debut for director Kornél Mundruczó, who gained a passionate following with his breakout film “White God” in 2014. The Hungarian filmmaker has brought his latest project to the streaming giant Netflix, earning acclaim for his singular vision and an outstanding performance by Vanessa Kirby.
“Pieces of a Woman” is written by Kata Wéber, Mundruczó’s partner, based on their shared personal experience. The follows a Boston couple, Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), whose lives are changed irrevocably during a home birth at a midwife’s hands. Ellen Burstyn’s plays Martha’s mother.
In August, ahead of its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Martin Scorsese joined as an executive producer even before it had distribution. “It’s lucky to see a movie that takes you by surprise,” Scorsese says in a statement to Variety. “I was emotionally invested in it from the first scene, and the experience only intensified as I watched, spellbound by the filmmaking and the work of a splendid cast that includes my old colleague Ellen Burstyn.” Scorsese directed Burstyn to her first Oscar for best actress for 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
In an interview with Variety, Mundruczó discusses the process of bringing the film to life and his personal connection to the source material.
Why did you choose this story for your English-language debut?
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.
How does the experience that you and Kata with an unborn child translate into the film?
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.
What was your vision for the film?
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.
Was the long opening take always part of the vision?
I saw this long-take scene as a spiritual manifesto about filmmaking, taking a story and growing it, manipulating time, and working with your actors. The scene required deep thought, deep care, deep trust, and deep support between myself and the actors.
What did Vanessa and Ellen bring to their roles as actresses?
Each has so much depth, complexity, and honesty in the work they do. Vanessa reminds me of those movie stars in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And Ellen, wow. “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” They both bring this emotional charge to their performances, that, watching, feel very emblematic of classic melodramas that I’ve loved for so long.
I knew this film would, in part, depend on strong performances that can fully take on the layered characters Kata Weber wrote. The roles required high-level acting, the best of the best, two women at the top of their game, which can bring depth, vulnerability, and strength to their characters. Vulnerability is strength. Vanesa and Ellen are powerful women and embody these strong, autonomous female characters.
Did you ever consider a different film structure that moves the birth scene to the end rather than the beginning?
Yes. We wanted to use the scene as a manifesto. or something like a bomb, like a monolith in that Stanley Kubrick way. It’s a tricky structure because you have something very cinematic and dramatic. How do you continue when you go down to the deepest point of the Earth? Then you see the climb, step by step, and in my opinion, you climb higher than where you started. More at the end than at the beginning with Martha’s experience is the shared experience with the audience.
“Pieces of a Woman” is currently streaming on Netflix.