Maurice Pialat’s ‘The Mouth Agape’ looks at death in the eye without sentimentality or embellishment

Posted on December 12, 2020

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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?”

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.

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