Saturday, June 13, 2015

179. The late French director Maurice Pialat’s “La Gueule Ouverte” (The Mouth Agape) (1974) based on his own original screenplay: An unforgettable cinematic work on dying and family bonds

Here’s a film every true film enthusiast ought to make an effort to see though it is rarely found on the “best film” lists of the better known film critics and directors. Some 40 years ago when this critic saw The Mouth Agape for the first time, the film and its director leapt out not only among the pantheons of French cinema’s giants but also those of world cinema. Forty years later, on a second viewing, this film, The Mouth Agape, still remains for this critic one among his world’s top 100 films. Most importantly, it has one of the finest subtle endings in the history of cinema, one that will be appreciated by any dyed-in-the -wool film viewer. And this review is not revealing it.

The Mouth Agape.  What a name!  One guesses Pialat’s choice of the title had something to do with the popular belief that people die with a last gasp for air associated with death.  Interestingly no such scene is included in the film, which is indeed pegged on the death of a lady Monique; only scenes prior to her death or after her death are included. The actual death is not shown on screen; it is inconsequential. The laboured heavy breathing of the dying Monique is captured with no other aural distraction and presented in a manner rarely seen on screen. Pialat could not have chosen the title because of the spoon-feeding of her semi-solid diet, which is shown in the film for the simple reason that the mouth is not always open when you eat or drink. It would be too simplistic to state the film is about Monique’s death, it would be more accurate to say the film is about Monique’s immediate family. If we zoom out of the specific tale, the film is about the fragility and the strengths of modern French family bonds which can be best assessed when death comes knocking at the door.

Monique (Monique Melinand) in hospital 

While one is not privy to the casting details and chronology of the writing of the original script by Pialat, one unique fact would strike the mind of an intelligent viewer. There are four major characters in the film, the dying mother Monique (Monique Mélinand), her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps), her son Philippe (Philippe Léotard) and her daughter-in-law Nathalie (Nathalie Baye). Three of the four major characters have the same first names of the actors. It is too much of a coincidence. Did the script develop after the casting of the actors? If the choice of names was a decision of convenience for the director and the actors, why was Roger called as such and not Hubert? Only those closely involved with the film would know.

Monique at home, later withering away

Now Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is not as celebrated in France or elsewhere as Godard or Truffaut or Chabrol are. His cinema is different. One possible reason for his lack of prominence is that he made his first film at 44, an age at which when most other directors would have established themselves and earned some recognition.

He creates a realism that is bereft of sentimentality. His strength in depicting realism is both aural and visual. One almost feels the Austrian director Michael Haneke is his pupil and that Haneke’s Amour (2012) borrowed heavily from Pialat’s The Mouth Agape (1974) while dealing with a similar subject. In both films, the dying wife steals the show.

The second best sequence, early in the film: son Philippe (Philippe Leotard)
and mother Monique's intimate conversation at home

Why is Pialat’s The Mouth Agape so fascinating? Early in the film there is a lovely yet brief and intimate conversation between Monique and Philippe (mother and grown-up son) alone recalling their past and the family dynamics. The script is brilliant just doing that and then it offers more. We learn for the first time that Monique was superior morally and socially (she was from Paris) to Roger (a provincial man to the core) and could have cheated on her husband but did not. We learn that Philippe was not a healthy child and was tended with care by his mother. Suddenly, Philippe gets up and puts on a record as though he is bored reminiscing the past and probably he is. They are listening to Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte/Thus They (Women) Do All.  The static camera of Néstor Almendros captures the two faces as the record plays for a very long time. (Haneke repeats a similar sequence in Amour for a different family relationship.) Then the phone rings. Philippe attends to it. And Monique, whom the viewer would have assumed was listening all the while to Mozart, continues wistfully the discussion she was having with her son, the music and phone call notwithstanding. It is so beautiful and intimate . And so real! This is the second most important sequence for this critic in the entire film after the awesome end sequence. In both sequences, it is the mastery of Pialat the director and scriptwriter hand in hand with Almendros that create the magic. The choice of the Mozart piece for the sequence adds on another layer of irony, bringing to the fore the differences between Philippe and Monique, which becomes apparent only much later.

Roger (Hubert Deschamps) and son Philippe watch over the dying Monique:
a newspaper covers the lamp's harsh light

Pialat’s film provides a contrast between the two women (Monique and Nathalie) and the two men (Roger and Philippe). The men have a roving eye and drift with the tide; the women are more anchored to their spouses. And yet the film captures another strange phenomenon: men change, at least some seem to change. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who asks Philippe to turn off the TV, “Honestly, Philippe, have some respect (for your mother) “, when Philippe loves to distract himself from the dying mother. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who feeds, cooks and takes care of his dying wife. When he cries, the viewer is devastated by the emotion. But Pialat’s tale does not merely show Roger having two sides to his personality—all the four have. Even the mother Monique we learn from others only cared for money and possessions, especially of her father after his death. And yet only Monique is the apparently religious person in the family.The film urges viewers to look at characters in totality, rather than a few actions. This is done with carefully planned dialogue and shots, that often linger when actors have left the frame.

Roger lovingly massages his dying wife Monique's toes

None of the other works of Pialat worked as well for this critic, possibly because this is perhaps the only Pialat film in which the cinematographer was the legendary Néstor Almendros (1930-92), who was responsible for so many marvellous works of cinema, including Malick’s Days of Heaven, Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, and Truffaut’s Story of Adele H all of which are great movies primarily because of the strength of the cinematography.

When one studies the camerawork of Almendros in The Mouth Agape there are the static shots in limited space and the moving camera that reveals delicate details, often social, rarely done in cinema. There is a sequence of the funeral service of Monique captured by Almendros and Pialat without entering the church or showing the dead body.  They are more interested in the living folks who are gathered outside. What a brilliant sequence! And finally much later the superb end sequence where no words are spoken and only images talk and jolt the viewer to figure it all out. That’s cinema. 

This is a movie, subtler and better than the best of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol, based on an original screenplay created and developed by the director alone. It is essential viewing for cineastes and students of cinema.

P.S. Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), which recalls the style and content of  The Mouth Agape, was reviewed on this blog earlier. The Mouth Agape is one of the author's best 100 films.

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