Maurice Pialat is a largely unknown commodity of French cinema. His work is reaching larger audiences at the moment due to a project by the Masters of Cinema line, in which they have decided to put 6 of his films out over the course of a year or so. La Gueule Ouverte is the third of these titles, and a welcome addition to my collection.
Being a huge fan of Pialat’s L’Enfance-Nue and A Nos Amours I approach each subsequent Pialat picture with the kind of optimism reserved for the very greats. While La Gueule Ouverte doesn’t reach the dizzy heights that those features do, it remains a magnificent achievement. The tale of the last few months in the life of Monique (portrayed incredibly by Monique Melinand) the matriarch of a family unit, and the way in which the lives of her family around her are affected as she undergoes a critical illness.
The film is interesting in the respect that the story doesn’t actually focus on the key character of Monique, but on those around her. As such we see the way in which her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps) coming to terms with her death in huis own unique way and the decline of her son Phillipe’s marriage to Nathalie which runs concurrently with her personal degradation. The personal nature of the struggles within La Gueule Ouverte remind of the work of John Cassavetes, a filmmaker that Pialat has been compared to on numerous occasions, but it never rings more true than in this piece. The sheer scale of the breakdown of the persona’s on screen is comparable to the likes of A Woman Under The Influence and Faces in their breadth and honesty. As such La Gueule Ouverte is incredibly draining emotionally, although there are brief touches of humour amongst the hardship (something which again reminds of Cassavetes).
The film opens with silence over the opening credits. Silence is a big factor in La Gueule Ouverte, with their being only one use of music throughout, which is used as an emotional indicator as statement, and as such proves effective. There are lots of awkward silences throughout the film, with the audience effectively participating within these silences by being forced to bear witness to them. The first one comes during the playing of the record in the aforementioned scene, and plays nicely against the final one of these “moments”, which comes between father and son as they witness Monique’s final resting spot on the bed that has become a character itself within the film. The accompanying cry of “It’s over” from Roger to notify his son is heartbreaking, and yet a huge statement; throughout the film many conflicts have arisen at the behest of the situation Monique’s illness has brought upon them, yet with this final act the preceeding tension and issues are all forgotten. The way in which the character of Monique seemingly becomes of lesser and lesser importance throughout is interesting too, with her slowly settling into the background, and becoming a catalyst for the scenario around her than an actual part of the world we are witnessing.
La Gueule Ouverte follows no formal rules of time. That is to say that it doesn’t follow the traditional route of telling a story by the medium of cinema. A scene could be followed by one several weeks later, with no indication brought on to the audience other than a shift in the mise-en-scene. While deliberately trying at first, it eventually becomes an effective narrative tool, and adds immeasurably to the success of the film.
The film ends with the most beautifully shot scene in all of Pialat’s oeuvre, in which Phillipe and Nathalie drive away from the family store, and effectively the situation that they have been a part of for the past 85 minutes. The free flowing tracking shot is a stark contrast to the still, precise camera movement that has preceeded it, and genuinely feels we the viewer are being given the opportunity to break free from the shackles that have encaptured the characters on screen.