Credit: Les Films de la Boétie
by Kenny Nixon Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Mouth Agape — Maurice Pialat

May 31, 2024

The title of Maurice Pialat’s 1974 film La Gueule Ouverte is reminiscent of something Francis Bacon said about his paintings of the pope screaming, reacting against accusations of pure shock value by saying he wanted to “paint the scream and not the horror.” Bacon’s argument is that he began from anatomy, communicating sensation by starting from facts and working outward from there. In English, Pialat’s film is usually translated as The Mouth Agape, sometimes as The Gaping Maw, both conveying a simple, brutal, anatomical fact about the subject of the film. In her rapid decline as a result of a terminal illness, Natalie (Natalie Baye) will lie in her bed, suffering a bodily desiccation reducing her to an open mouth, unable to talk, chew food, and barely able to breathe. Pialat paints the scream and lets the horror develop organically; The Mouth Agape is distressingly uneventful for a film about death, with Natalie’s son Philippe (Philippe Leotard) and husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps) spending most of the film killing time, attempting to soothe inner wounds by skirt-chasing. And the film has nothing definite to say about grief, family, or illness, except present evidence that these things are all horrible in their own unique ways. 

Pialat was a late bloomer, his first feature coming at age 43 with L’enfance Nue (1968), produced by Francois Truffaut, this following a decade of short documentaries and ethnographic films. He is of a generation of French filmmakers, like Jean Eustache and Jacques Rozier, who just missed out on the branding opportunity that the French New Wave provided, and this separation from the Young Turks of the yellow Cahiers was admitted to be a source of deep discontent for Pialat. This brusque, hulky, working-class Auvergnat spent the rest of the century converting that discontented demeanor and chaotic personal life into fuel for a filmography of equal parts autobiography and on-set psychogeography. The Mouth Agape is loosely based on Pialat’s experiences with his mother’s passing about a decade prior to filming, but also became informed by his father’s failing health while shooting (he passed away before the film was released). The film came on the heels of Pialat’s most successful work to date with 1972’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, a staccato breakup film pitched to the sadistically implosive behavior of Jean Yanne and his on-screen partner Marlene Joebert, featuring a plot also inspired by Pialat’s life — a recent breakup of his own. In comparison, then, The Mouth Agape is the director’s greatest failure in a career not exactly marked by critical or commercial success, and as a result of its losses, he had to end his independent production company, Les Films Du Livradois. 

The film contains the least shots of Pialat’s filmography, as he and cinematographer Nestor Almendros conceive of death’s process as a series of long-take tableaux, including a nearly eight-and-a-half minute shot toward the beginning of the film where Philippe and Natalie discuss the various ways in which their familial lives have been abjectly disappointing. We are not only introduced to the toxic family dynamics at play here, but this is also the only time we see Natalie out of bed and relatively healthy, able to feed herself and communicate normally. The rest of the film sees her decaying in bed, her last 15 minutes of screentime entirely nonverbal and dominated by the sound of her labored wheezes, like the final scene of Rosselini’s Blaise Pascal (1972), another work about bodily failure. Pialat conceives of death as an unsettling process anatomically, but dramatically it is ultimately banal; when Natalie finally passes, it occurs off-screen, with Roger mentioning to Philippe, as he reads in another room, “C’est fini.” 

Pialat’s autobiographical inclinations come from a deep mistrust of fiction. It’s not simply the facts of his life he films, but he informs each scene with the extra-filmic elements of the chaos he established on set. Almost every actor he worked with (aside from his beloved Sandrine Bonnaire) has negative things to say about him; Jean Yanne never spoke to him again after We Won’t Grow Old Together, while Sophie Marceau has publicly condemned Pialat for the brutal treatment of her and others during the filming of Police (1985). This association with a harsh realism has led people to compare him to Cassavetes thanks to the emotional tempests he would unleash, but it’s hard to see Cassavetes anywhere in The Mouth Agape, as the film instead features the brute force one finds in Mizoguchi or Dreyer. Pialat operates with a boxing-ring logic, delivering continual gut punches to send fleeing into different corners, each scene only bringing more bruises. This approach seems to parallels how he treats his actors, as often they have very little space in which to maneuver, the director creating little obstacles that bring out quasi-improvisational kinks in their behavior, and evoking a richer tapestry of details from their characters. 

One particular scene in The Mouth Agape highlights the brutality of this tactic: as Natalie’s body is placed in the coffin, Philippe and Roger — mirrors throughout the whole film, with matching wardrobes and hunched gaits — have opposite reactions, as Roger has finally broken down while Philippe maintains a stony demeanor. They are sitting on Natalie’s bed on the ground, and so they are awkwardly leaning on each other, with Roger in Philippe’s lap. Roger has to go near-prone across Philippe’s lap in order to plant a kiss on Natalie’s corpse, while the morticians have to bend completely over in order to secure the coffin lid. As Philippe and Roger leave the scene, the coffin is so close to them on the bed that in order to get up, Philippe has to physically push it out of the way — little horrifying details peppering an already horrifying scene, all animated by Pialat’s dense staging. And the next shot offers the bravura piece of the film. Like Dreyer will often do in interiors, Pialat slowly dollies the camera left and pans to the right, creeping around the corner of a church. The shot lands on Natalie’s funeral procession waiting outside the church, reminiscent of Courbet’s Burial at Ornans

No other director gives a stronger sense of devastation than Pialat. The Mouth Agape is a particularly exhausting watch because of its relentless hurtling toward Natalie’s death, always in the present tense yet absent of a concrete time frame. The film school screenwriting rule that dictates one must get into a scene late and leave early is treated with scorn by Pialat; he arrives early to see an emotional arc develop, then leaves whenever he pleases. Where films like A Nous Amours (1983) or Loulou (1980) feature scenes of intense screaming matches cut through with sincere emotional fervor, The Mouth Agape sits in the eye of the Pialat storm. This family is past the point where screaming matches hold any weight after so many years of lying and cheating one another. Even after Roger gives the impression of trying to make up for past sins by obsessively tending to Natalie’s needs, her last acidic words to him can only be barely choked out: “You smell like wine. You were running after some tramp.” 

It seems that Pialat’s whole working life was animated by such a strong personal resentment that he distributed indiscriminately, including directed at himself. Serge Toubiana tried to include interviews with him as additions to Gaumont discs of his films, but Pialat couldn’t get through any of the interviews without bad-mouthing each of the films. W.B. Yeats said that George Eliot needed to include realist elements throughout Middlemarch because she “seemed to have a distrust or a distaste for all in life that gives one a springing foot.” Yeats’ pejorative tone aside, Pialat turned that distaste into doctrine, every film is a battleground, and every apparently kind gesture, like Roger feeding his wife, is an affront to one’s dignity. The Mouth Agape is not about the grieving process, infidelity, terminal illness, or even the boring lives of the provincial French. It’s about how, as Pialat favorite Van Gogh observed, “the sadness will last forever.”

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon