Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces Of A Woman opens with a young couple readying to give birth at home. Shot in a 23-minute-long take, it captures every breathing detail: their nervous frenzy and quivering excitement, her tactile discomfort and his contained restlessness; their fleeting alarm at the last-minute midwife change. The defining set-piece also distills the tender language of their companionship; the sinuous camera movement embodies grammar of their togetherness: they are not broken yet. But joy soon runs its course. The evening ends with a cry for help. As the screen dissolves into darkness, something breaks.
Personal losses are seldom shared. Even when it constitutes something as numbing as the death of a child where afflictions appear neatly equal, ways to come to terms with it differ. Mourning, the chosen vehicle for closure, becomes competitive when done together, colouring grief divisive. This ruinous quality of sorrow has served as a recurrent subtext in films which share their premise with Mundruczó’s latest, providing both the cause and effect of aborted relationships.
But if such losses lead to breakdown of ties, the extent of it is also understood in conjunction. Navigating through the uneven slope of despair, embittered selves of the people involved come to the fore. Their bruised versions in effect remind us of their togetherness with aching fervour; the growing distance between them evokes their once-shared proximity. Who they become in such tragedies then, is a constant reminder of who they could have been. Decadence operates as an unlikely exposition.
In his first English language feature, the Hungarian director wrenches nostalgia out of wreckage and uses loss to reveal and not just depict. When we meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby in a career-defining turn) and Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf playing an extension of his now-public persona), the Boston couple stand on the precipice of domesticity: the newly-bought car serving as a symbol of routine. As things change one evening, all their plans are upended. But their journey towards reconciliation with fate discloses not who they could have been but who they are. The distance between them showcases their differences not born out of a joint adversity but in spite of that.
She is an executive, he is a construction foreman. She retires into a shell when stung with a disaster, he howls like a wounded animal. She wants to give their baby girl up for medical research, he wants to put her to rest. He wants to move on, she can’t find her feet. He grows reckless in loss, she becomes cautious. She has a domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn), he has a relapsing addiction. They had not found but rescued each other. The child then was an expression of their love and not progression of their companionship. The 23-minute-long take where the couple break into laughter and kisses amid the primal pain of birth-giving, represents a stage in their lives and not a lifetime of their relationship. Their separation then was an eventuality and not the result of accursed fate. Decadence here operates as an unlikely revelation.
But Pieces Of A Woman, which has its roots in Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s personal tragedy of losing a child during pregnancy (Wéber has written the screenplay), is at its core a definitive portrait of a woman afflicted with such an unspeakable loss. And it is so even though the publicly-vilified trial of the midwife plays out in the background and the collapse of her companionship unfolds in the foreground.
This is her story of being and becoming, of shattering into pieces and gathering them again. And this is where the film is merciless. It unsparingly documents Martha’s every day: her navigation through grief, and in extension chronicles what living and not suffering with constant loss feels like — her lactating breasts, her continued periods, her fixation with sprouting. These manifestations– symptoms of grief– trace a lifetime of unfulfilled hope; outline an existence enmeshed with a pain different but no less agonising than estrangement. The recurring bridge image which ultimately is constructed by the end of the film serves as an annoying metaphor of their broken relationship but a rewarding imagery of her own emotional evolvement. Loss here is treated with an individuality it deserves.
If the central conceit of grief is that it comes with validity, the chief solace of loss is that it comes with accountability. The idea of holding someone else responsible for our fate alleviates the suffering. Pieces Of A Woman, which comes from a deeply-personal space, debunks that. In a terrific face-off scene, Martha’s mother tries convincing her to go to the trial and “speak her truth”. The idea is to get justice, to get closure from passing on the blame. Martha breaks down without assenting, quietens without surrendering. She realises the futility of it. Some losses do not create a lack but underline their presence through their prolonged absence. We gain from them. They break us, but only through those pieces can we become whole.
(Pieces Of A Woman is streaming on Netflix)