Friday 12 March 2021

Multiplicity: "Mouthpiece"

Mouthpiece is the Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema and writer-stars Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava (whose play the film is adapted from) repurposing and fleshing out what was but a joke in Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire: two actresses playing the same character at the same time, the better to convey something about the duality of woman. Buñuel's pairing of Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina were doubly unattainable, and forever the object of a recognisably male gaze; the gag in that movie was how these spectral fantasy women both stoked and frustrated the desires of the men whose lives they drifted through. Rozema deploys Nostbakken and Sadava - distinguished in the closing credits as 'Tall Cassandra' and 'Short Cassandra', but otherwise joined largely at the hip - as two halves of a daughter who's just received news of her mother's passing and thus has to navigate the funeral arrangements while sorting her memories of the deceased, a woman who appeared to abandon her dreams to care for a kid. Crucially, this pair aren't interchangeable (as Bouquet and Molina were, to some degree), but an onscreen team. They run the relays of grief, one Cassandra picking up and moving on where the other just wants to curl up in a ball. And though they sometimes exhibit different responses to the same situation - one smiling at a handyman's pick-up line, the other flipping him the bird - they do so within the context of those internal back-and-forths we all have with ourselves, never more so than at times of elevated stress. That's another reason we go along with the conceit, I think: it's as if the death of the mother has given rise to an identity crisis in the daughter. Forced to stand on her own two feet and truly take responsibility for her choices, Cassandra isn't sure who she is - or, one could say, who they are - any more.

Take out the buy-one-get-one-free casting, and this would be familiar material for the North American indie: the fraught homecoming, with a large side of protagonist makes peace with their past. Commit to it, as director and actors have, and you start to see how one bold creative choice is enough to freshen up any such scenario. The movie has the advantage that Nostbakken and Sadava presumably performed these roles at one another's sides night after night: they're operating 100% in synch, and sell the conceit whenever it needs selling. (One especially deft touch early on: when this pair remove their coats to carry through an overheated shopping mall, their scarves drag along the floor in parallel, to be tripped over in the exact same manner. We get the sense that, whether tall or short, Cassandra is still a girl rather than a fully-grown, standalone woman.) For Rozema, these actors are a ready-made sight gag: we're never quite sure which of the two is going to pop up, nor where they're going to pop up within the frame. One can be striving to achieve orgasm with her lover; the other can be found in an armchair off to the side, gabbing relentlessly. Collectively, they allow their director to shift between and better define Cassandra's emotional states: the camera literally has two leads to follow. Sporadic musical interludes still have the ring of fringe theatre about them: Rozema doesn't have the budget to translate these into fully-fledged setpieces, so I could see why she abandons them after a while. She doesn't need them, because everywhere else she does a very solid job of opening up what was once a stage piece, honing in on the ideas in Nostbakken and Sadava's writing and reframing them as thoughtful, playful, appropriately fluid cinema. I suspect Mouthpiece is destined to feature in a small yet imposing stack of theses about femininity and performance in the years ahead, but its appeal shouldn't be rigidly gendered, nor is it entirely academic: several of my inner Mikes could be heard chuckling at the unusually strong Christmas cracker joke Rozema's camera alights upon at one point.

Mouthpiece is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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