Maurice Pialat’s The Mouth Agape looks death in the eye without sentimentality or embellishment
The Mouth Agape is shockingly un-aestheticised. If Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers was a “dream,' then this is the nightmare equivalent.
What is death? To the dying, it’s the end of a protracted period of physical pain and mental agony. To the people around, it’s a reminder of not just the dying person’s mortality but also their own.
The most famous film about death is possibly Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), which revolves around a woman suffering from cancer. The film tells the story of this woman, her two sisters, and their servant. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman writes: “Death’s an insoluble horror, not because it hurts, but because it’s full of beastly dreams you can’t wake up from.” That’s a near-perfect description of what Cries and Whispers is like: a dream you can’t wake up from.
But you probably wouldn’t use the word “beastly”, for the film is so exquisitely aestheticised. For a film that deserves that word, you could turn to Maurice Pialat’s French drama The Mouth Agape (La gueule ouverte), which was released in 1974. Here, too, we have a woman dying of cancer.
But the film is shockingly un-aestheticised, and if Bergman’s chamber piece was a “dream”, then this is the nightmare equivalent.
The woman is Monique (Monique Mélinand). The chemotherapy is not working, and the doctor asks her son Philippe (Philippe Léotard) to take her home.
This happens very early in the movie, and a scene at home with mother and son hints at a warm drama about a family learning to deal with death. Philippe puts on a record. It’s a Mozart opera. Mother and son listen to the lovely music for about two minutes and twenty seconds, which is an eternity in screen time. They do nothing but listen, and the almost-static camera (there’s some minor movement, but the frame stays the same) does nothing, either. Left with little else to look at, our eyes scan the frame. We take in the cigarette in Philippe’s hand, the serene expression on Monique’s face. We take in the things on the table in front of them: some fruit, some cheese, a bottle of wine.
On subsequent viewings, this bit of opera really stands out. First, because it’s the only stretch of music in the whole film. (There’s no background score.) Also, as we see in the opening credits, the opera is Così fan tutte, whose story is about whether women can remain faithful to their men — and we realise there’s a reason Pialat chose this particular opera. For as Monique’s condition worsens, the men around her prove to be unfaithful. Philippe can’t stop cheating on his wife Nathalie (Nathalie Baye), and Monique’s husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps) can’t stop cheating on her. What a nightmare! And how different from the warm, sentimental drama that the opera scene hinted at!
One especially ghastly scene has Roger hitting on a female customer in his clothing store: the girl doesn’t seem to mind, but it’s the dictionary definition of sexual harassment. What makes the scene even more appalling is that, just a little earlier, we’ve seen Monique tell Roger: “Your breath… You… were… running… after… some... tart.” The pauses occur because her condition has deteriorated to an extent that saying even a single word requires an enormous amount of effort. Roger knows how his actions are affecting his wife, who probably has days to live. And yet, here he is, at his store…
And yet, here’s Roger again, at the end of the film, after Monique dies. He seems genuinely heartbroken. He cannot stop crying, especially when Monique is put into a coffin and a worker places the lid on it and tightens the screws. Later, he says, “We lived together for 34 years. I’ve got good memories. It’s true that we argued. We did. But she was kind.”
She was kind. That’s a nice thing to say about someone. But what else was she? We see so much of what the people around Monique do, but is there the slightest sliver of insight about her? And we think back to the opera scene, when Monique tells Philippe that he takes after his father in his philandering ways. He asks, “But... You cheated on Dad too, didn’t you?” She replies, “But how could I have done it? I always had you (as a little boy) sleeping with me in my room.”
This phrasing is interesting. Monique is not indignant that she’s being asked about adultery. She simply explains why it was not possible, which — in a nutshell — may be the difference between Hollywood and French cinema, and it’s summed up perfectly in Miguel Marias’ essay about this film in Senses of Cinema: “I think the single trait that singled-out Maurice Pialat from most other filmmakers is that he dared to look at things in the face, frontally, directly, without any kind of sentimentality, embellishment, softening camera movements or preparatory transitional shots.”
Extrapolating from this description of technique, with respect to the emotional content of the film, Pialat is asking: “Why should I — and by extension, my characters — be kind to Monique? Just because she is dying? But people die all the time, don’t they?” I was often reminded of our own lives today. We hear about someone’s death. We are grief-stricken for a bit. We post a tweet mourning the person. Five minutes later, we see another (unconnected) tweet from someone else, a tweet that makes us laugh, and we reply: “LOL.”
Pialat exposes the hollowness of most dramas about death and the dying, where everything revolves around the deathbed. Philippe and Roger and Nathalie do keep looking in on Monique, but they’re also leading (imperfect) lives of their own that have nothing to do with Monique.
The “mismatch” between subject matter and treatment is beautifully mirrored in another moment when Monique tells Philippe about her father. “My father used to put me in the cellar as a punishment. He left me there for hours. He terrorised me. When I went to school, I hardly dared say a word. It took me weeks to make friends.” And yet, the same man was a darling to Philippe, who remembers his grandfather very differently, as “the most wonderful man I’d ever met.” One’s telling a horrible story, another is recounting a beautiful memory, but nither of them raises their voice. They could be talking about the weather. That’s life, isn’t it? There’s sun. There are clouds. We go on till we die.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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