Friday, April 01, 2016

Cinema Obscura: Maurice Pialat's "The Mouth Agape"

Maurice Pialat is a selfish filmmaker. How dare he make a film about the waning days of a mother while conspicuously deflecting her death and turning his gaze onto the father and son and their trivial problems of sexual fulfillment and familial discord. While she's slowly dying upstairs, son Philippe (Philippe Leotard) suffers from impotency with a young girl he picks up on the street. Not to mention he's married to the beautiful Nathalie Baye who seems to understand and even partially forgive his past indiscretions. Father Roger (Hubert Deschamps) also brags about a life long series of extra marital dalliances, his perversity reaching stunning heights as he paws and feels up a young girl who comes into his shop to buy a new t-shirt. After making her undress in order to try the new shirt on, he gives her small pecks on the lips (that she nervously tries to avoid) before sending her on the way with a free pair of stockings. In any other film, Roger and Philippe would be monstrous examples of masculinity,. In Pialat's hands, they transform "The Mouth Agape" into a lacerating study of how grief and inchoate feelings often mar the way we react when faced with dire consequences. Like his previous film, "We Won't Grow Old Together" (which also presents masculinity, patriarchal repression and emotional commitment as crutches for the terrible decisions we make on the ones we love), "The Mouth Agape" isn't interested in presenting a straightforward idea on something so cut and dry as death. It's messy, untranslatable and full of small asides that veer closer to autobiography than acted drama. There's certainly a reason for his selfishness.

Opening with Philippe assisting his mother (Monique Melinande) to a hospital visit, the next scene specifies Pialat's real interest. Mother and son talk in a kitchen, for what feels like an eternity in a single take, about a wide range of ideas. As their talk ends, both stand up and mother slightly stumbles, the camera barely able to keep her in the frame as son helps her up. That conversation is the only normal moment in the rest of the film. Eventually dismissed from the hospital and told to have her die in peace at home, "The Mouth Agape" follows Philippe and Nathalie (interesting how the film uses the actors real names) as they travel home to be with mother and father throughout her last days. They quarrel. Philippe has his continued moments of weakness with other women. Roger endlessly leaves the house and slips away to the local bar to have red wine and flirt with tourists. Philippe and Nathalie attempt to reconcile their differences. All the hallmarks of usual French cinema- shifting sexual loyalty, doubt, and the general 'laisssez faire' attitude about things- become the central conceit with a dark underbelly of truth. As writer David Thompson pointed out in his May/June 2004 article about Pialat in "Film Comment" which he gleaned from Pascal Merigeau's biography of the filmmaker, too much of "The Mouth Agape" was culled from Pialat's own life. His mother had died about ten years before and father, also nicknamed 'le garcu" as in the film, died just months before filming began. Likewise, actor and actress Baye and Leotard were, in fact, embroiled in their own relationship during the film, which certainly added to the frisson observed on screen. The coincidences and nods to real life seep off the screen in tragic, pulsing ways.

When all is said and done, "The Mouth Agape" does deal with the actual death of Monique, which sends unexpected reactions from the characters and gives the film its emotional hook. For all the carousing and chain-smoking, life's tangible frailty is not completely ignored. And even though the death happens off-screen, acknowledged in Roger's dismissive line of "it's over" to his son who wanders down the family home hallway, one gets the sense its far from over. Monique's presence, love and perhaps even the hatred she might of felt for her husband will resound in their hearts long after the lights of the shop are dimmed. Like Pialat himself, who continued to bleed the personal and private within his public works for years to come, he knows he's flawed. Making films that chisel away at the truth are the only way he knows how to deal with it.

The Mouth Agape will be receiving a DVD release from Cohen Media in May 2016.

No comments: