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Mouthpiece

Director – Patricia Rozema – 2018 – Canada – Cert. 15 – 91m

****1/2

Tall Cassie and short Cassie struggle to find the words for the eulogy for their mother’s funeral after she dies suddenly and unexpectedly – on MUBI from Thursday, March 24th

Christmas. Tall Cassie (Amy Nostbakken) and short Cassie (Norah Sadova) get drunk in a bar with friends, make their way home on their (one) bicycle and collapse into bed, ignoring the flood of mobile messages which they don’t pick up ‘til the next, sunny morning. They answer. It’s bad news. Their mum has died. Could she pick the flowers? Danny is going to do the speech.

But Cassie is the writer in the family and she won’t have it. She’ll do the speech herself. Danny isn’t capable of doing it. Although she doesn’t yet know what to say. And the funeral is in 48 hours.

Welcome to the world of sudden parental bereavement where things you know to be solid and true fold and crumple before your eyes. Where you are flooded with random memories as you try to make sense of it all. There are social rituals and structures supposedly to help you deal with this – ordering the flowers, choosing suitable clothes to wear, picking out the coffin, writing a eulogy for the deceased, attending a funeral service. However, it’s the memories which must be confronted and worked through as you try to make sense of all this. When on some level, the death of a loved one, a person with all their faults and failings, makes no sense whatsoever.

In a medium defined by photography – you point a camera at a subject and know what you see to be a physical representation – Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing, 1987) pulls off a trick that ought not to work yet somehow does. She splits her main protagonist into two characters. First you think the two women are flatmates or lovers, then when they start talking about their mum your brain reassigns them as two sisters who share the same bed, then at some later point still your brain reassesses further with elements such as flashbacks to when Cassie was a little girl (Taylor Belle Puterman) and there’s clearly one not two of her, or the fact that both women are addressed on different occasions by the same name, images such as tall Cassie wheeling a shopping trolley through a supermarket while short Cassie reclines in the trolley.

Somewhat incredibly, the piece originated as a stage play by leads Nostbakken and Sadova. Rozema saw it, was bowled over with the split character device and worked with the pair to turn the property into a movie. It’s to their credit that the result never once feels like a filmed stage play. (This writer wasn’t aware of the piece’s stage origins until he read the press handouts).

So, who was Cassie’s mum Elaine (Maev Beaty)? She was a writer who wrote one hugely successful book then stopped to have a family and never got back into it. She played guitar and sang using Joni Mitchell tunings (lead Nostbakken singing several such songs of her own on the soundtrack) with a copy of Mitchell’s Hejira momentarily visible among a bunch of LPs in a brief flashback. Her little daughter remembers helping her select earrings for a meeting with a publisher after not writing for some time. “They’ll work if they’re the right earrings”, says mum. Later, she observes her mum back at home, head in hands. And when struggling to choose a coffin, she remembers her mum liked cedar which helps her to choose.

Although the funeral takes place in a Christian church with lots of friends and family present, Cassie doesn’t appear to possess any religious categories or understanding to fall back on – there’s no discussion of what might or might not happen to us after we die, no bigger picture as to what it all might be for beyond a final conclusion as to what her mum’s life was about and its significance in terms of familial relationships. It’s all about the struggle to say the right words at the funeral and somehow be truthful to the loved one who has passed – and here that appears to be it. What the film does convey very effectively, though, is the bereavement experience of unexpectedly losing a parent.

Mouthpiece is on MUBI from Thursday, March 24th.

Trailer:

On MUBI from Thursday, March 24th 2022.

Virtual cinemas and on VoD from Friday, March 12th 2021.

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