Maurice Pialat wasn’t the kind of director to beat around the bush, so let’s put this as plainly as possible - La gueule ouverte, the director’s third feature film from 1974 is just as direct in its treatment as the two films that preceded it, taking here a frank look at death, the slow lingering death of an old lady from cancer. The director doesn’t sweeten the pill, doesn’t show a loving tearful family gathered around the old woman to share her last moments, but shows instead a bunch of selfish, egoistical people, bitter about the past and uncomfortable about the relationships that bind them together. And yet, there is tenderness there, expressed awkwardly – by the characters, not the director – and in an unlikely form, one that is not conventionally cinematic, but reflects reality, the way people are and the way families are.
In this respect, the film presents a very Pialat way of looking at the world, of looking at life and death. If you’ve read or watched any interview with the director, you’ll see a complicated man - contradictory, fiercely combative, hypercritical of himself and of others, brutally honest about his failings (or at least what he perceived to be his failings) and unashamed to confront them directly on the screen. Whether or not there are autobiographical elements in the film - Pialat’s mother died in the same village as the one seen in the film, and Philippe is certainly a substitute Pialat role - La gueule ouverte at the very least presents life the way Pialat saw it. That is even expressed vividly in the title, translated here as The Mouth Agape, and alternately as The Gaping Maw, but it’s almost impossible to accurately convey in English the ugly, brutal openness the expression implies, one that fits entirely with the premise of the film, showing life and death, laid out before you, raw and unadorned by niceties.
The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the point, showing the distance and at the same time the closeness between Philippe (Philippe Léotard) and his mother Monique (Monique Mélinand), who has come down to Paris for a scan at the hospital. Their conversation is stripped of any falsity or conventional exposition, dragging over old differences and memories in a confrontational manner, but it also shows the ties that bind them as family, for better or for worse. The mother it becomes clear, has lived in a bitter marriage all her life, her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps), a man who cheated on her with his mistress the day after their wedding, a filthy lecherous old goat who, even as his wife lies upstairs in agony after returning to their home in the Auvergne to die, is pawing young female customers in their clothing and haberdashery store below.
Like father, like son, Philippe is not beyond cheating on his wife Nathalie (Nathalie Baye) either - slipping off to hotel rooms with a woman he has just picked up and even flirting with the nurses attending his dying mother. The whole accumulated guilt of their actions and age-old bitterness that lies between the generations of the family, as well as between the male and female sexes (perhaps alluded to also, along with questions of fidelity, in the use of extracts from Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte), eats away into their relationships with each other and with other people, colouring their view of the world. It’s not a pretty picture.
And yet there is love and tenderness there, for despite appearances to the contrary, love lies at the heart of all Pialat’s films. It’s not immediately evident, it’s not expressed in any way that makes it easily recognisable, and you really have to dig deep beneath the surface of these apparently despicable and egotistical people to find it. But if you can reach it, you’ll see that it’s not just a shallow well, but a vast underground lake - hidden beneath the harsh rocks of jealousy, bitterness, violence, self-mortification and grief - but it’s most certainly there. And that’s how life and love is - not how we’d like it to be, and never pure, but wrapped up in a thousand conflicting and less noble sentiments. Pialat is a master of expressing this, and doesn’t dress it up - particularly in his first three exceptional films (L’Enfance nue, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble and La gueule ouverte), but also very strongly in À nos amours and Loulou - presenting life as it is lived. In La gueule ouverte we also see death depicted on the screen as never before, family relationships, generational and gender differences, but most of all we see love – all the things that make us human, with all the failings that this implies.
La gueule ouverte is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection. A 2-disc set, both the film and the substantial extra features are spread across two dual-layer discs. The transfer and extras on Disc 1 are a port of the French disc from Gaumont, but with the addition of English subtitles. Disc 2 as a bonus collects two of Pialat’s early short films and his six Turkish films, previously only available to my knowledge, unsubtitled in the French Pialat Vol. 2 Collected boxset. The transfer is in PAL format. The disc is region-free.
Derived from the French Gaumont edition and identical is every respect but with the addition of English subtitles, the transfer of the film is excellent. A slight aging of colour does the film no harm whatsoever, detail is good and the image is clear with only minor marks. Darker interiors hold up well and grain is well handled. There are one or two isolated moments of shimmer, some mild macroblocking artefacts and faint DNR issues, the transfer not coping brilliantly with one long slow pan of the camera at the funeral scene towards the end of the film, but for the main part the image is wonderfully stable.
The film’s soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and for the most part it’s fine, as good as you would expect a film of this age to be. It can sound a little rough and slightly muffled in one or two scenes, but this would appear to be down to the recording conditions.
English subtitles are optional and in a white font. They move to the top of the screen on occasion when they would otherwise obscure the faces of the people low in the frame.
Disc 1 contains all the extra features relating to La gueule ouverte. The Original French Trailer (2:50) consists almost entirely of stills with the Mozart soundtrack, capturing the explicit, raw nature of the film. Footage From The Shoot (11:25) shows unused footage of a dinner-party in the countryside that it’s hard to imagine fitting anywhere in the film. In the absence of a soundtrack, Jean-François Balmer – who along with Jacques Villeret is consequently cut entirely from the finished film – provides a commentary, giving his impressions on Pialat and anecdotes about the filming of the scene. The footage is 1.66:1 anamorphic. The most informative extra feature on the disc is Micheline Pialat: From Wife to Housekeeper (11:55), a fascinating interview with Pialat’s first wife, where she confirms just how much of their personal lives ended up in the director’s early films. In a recent Interview with Nathalie Baye (8:06) the actress also recalls her memories of working on the film, the experience gained working with Pialat and consideration of why the film holds up so well. Also included on the first disc is an early black-and-white short film by Maurice Pialat from 1961, Janine (16:35) with Hubert Deschamps and Claude Berri as two men who meet casually and find they both love the same woman, a prostitute called Janine (Evelyn Kerr). Six Trailers are included for other Pialat films.
Disc 2 contains two early short films by Maurice Pialat from 1957 and 1958. Drôles de bobines (17:16) is a randomly amusing silent slapstick based around an assistant manager and a feisty old lady who gets mixed up with a foreign delegation visiting his factory. In L’ombre familière (23:59), a young TV and radio producer comes under the influence of an enigmatic young poet, much to the consternation of his girlfriend. With its sci-fi soundtrack, desolate suburban setting and drained swimming pools, it seems to pre-date J.G. Ballard in a Nouvelle Vague sort of way.
Disc 2 also contains Pialat’s six short Turkish films from 1964 - Bosphore (13:29), Byzance (10:52), La corne d’or (12:17), Istanbul (12:48) Maître Galip (10:59) and Pehlivan (12:53) - poetic reflections on the history, character, traditions, buildings and the people of Istanbul, bustling and full of life. The films are sometimes rather random and impressionistic, but have an elegant and painterly quality in the cinematography of Willy Kurant. A recent Interview with Willy Kurant (15:35) looks at the work that went on behind overcoming the technical obstacles in the making of the short films. Cyril Collard conducts an interesting interview with the director in the Pialat Interview about the Cinématèque (13:55), talking about his earliest film memories and the films that influenced him. Cinephiles beware – there is disturbing footage of film reels being shredded in here. Old and not looking in the best of health in 2002, Pialat is nevertheless engaging and funny in an Excerpt from Pialat Masterclass (9:25), where he discusses Maître Galip and the making of the Turkish films.
Also included is a fine and informative 32-page booklet, with credits for film and all the short films, an essay on the film by Adrian Martin, excerpts from archive Pialat interviews on his intentions for La gueule ouverte, and some comments on the making of Janine and Maître Galip.
La gueule ouverte is a film of such intensity and uncommon brutal honesty about a subject that is usually treated with more delicacy and sensitivity, that it can be difficult and challenging to the viewer. You have to work hard to get past the disagreeable impression made by the unpleasant actions and behaviour of the characters to understand them and the love that lies between them, but the effort is certainly rewarded in this powerful film. Masters of Cinema have come up with an excellent transfer for the film, which is very well supported on this edition by extra features and interviews relating to the director and the film. The Turkish short films are peripheral to Pialat’s body of work, but are beautifully made and it’s great to see them included here also.