30 year old Cassandra’s mother has just passed away suddenly. With the funeral two days away, she has to cope with helping to make the arrangements, and is insisting that she, as the writer in the family, be the one to give the eulogy.
The framework of the story of Mouthpiece is, sadly, commonplace. Almost all of us will have to deal with the death of a parent at some time and the process, while unique to each of us, is also one that will be, to a degree, universal. The way that Mouthpiece presents this story is what marks it out from many other films that have looked at how their characters process death. The central conceit here is that Cassandra is played by two actresses (Amy Nostbakken as ‘Tall Cassandra’ and Norah Sadava as ‘Short Cassandra). It’s not always quite this simple, but generally speaking Tall Cassandra is the more assertive side of the personality; saying what she thinks with greater haste and a sharper tone, perhaps shielding the more pliant short Cassandra who is the more reflective of the two aspects.
Nostbakken and Sadava, who also wrote the play the film is based on, and adapted it with the input of director Patricia Rozema, are obviously very comfortable in their roles. The flow of how the two play off each other, the effortless rhythm with which they pick up the thread of a scene from one another, is a hugely effective shorthand for the fact they are playing the same person. There are also little physical cues at times; moments when we’ll find them doing the exact same movement or striking the exact same pose (the way, in the opening scene, they fall into bed after a late night of drinking, for instance). However, it’s the differences between their performances that are the most important, from the choice of who to use in each moment, to how the physicality of her peroformance seems to shrink Sadava at times.
There is something surreal about grief. It can make us feel things and remember things in ways that are more vivid and impactful than usual. Patricia Rozema’s direction represents this very well, but mostly unobtrusively (the exception being a couple of musical sequences that feel a little out of place). Early on, when Cassandra’s brother (Jake Epstein) comes to talk to her, he tells her how he found their mother. Tall Cassandra breezes past him, asking why he would tell her that, then Short Cassandra also emerges from the same room and just hugs him. This is just one of many moments that use two figures to draw a complex and very credible portrait of a single character. Perhaps the scene that most clearly illustrates how Cassandra’s mind is working from moment to moment, comes when she breaks off from funeral preparations to try and hook up with someone. Tall Cassandra takes the lead, with Short Cassandra mostly sitting off to the side in a chair, representing intrusive thoughts about her writing (“I think every word I’ve ever written, while I was writing it, I was wondering what a man would think when he read it”) and her body (“what are those dangly things, Udders? Turn over”). It’s a sequence that feels completely honest and of the moment as it gets inside Cassandra’s mind, straining for distraction it can’t find.
The pivotal moment the film is building to is Cassandra’s eulogy for her mother, and the main push and pull between her two sides is how to phrase what she wants to say, with Tall Cassandra obviously favouring a more confrontationally honest approach, but neither of them wanting to misrepresent who she was. The final manifestation of this fight is perhaps the only moment in which the balance and battle between the two sides of Cassandra is depicted in a way that feels a little obvious, however, that is more than made up for by the speech itself, and by a final shot that seemingly wants to tie the film’s ideas to Bergman’s Persona.
Mouthpiece plays some experimental games with the way it presents its main character, but it’s never pretentious. The split of Cassandra’s different aspects (this is clearly not a depiction of multiple personality disorder or anything like it) serves not only to develop a fully rounded character for me it, and the film, captured something emotionally true and which feels like it understands how our minds work more intimately than most movies are able to demonstrate.