Have you ever questioned your beliefs about controversial feminist issues? When watching childhood Disney films, maybe you are frustrated with the reductive roles of the heroines, or perhaps the romantic happy ending fills your heart with joy. Maybe you fluctuate between the two, or even think about both at the same time. How do you believe is the best way to respond to being catcalled in the street? Perhaps your reaction conflicts with how you think you should react. This duality within each of us that can challenge our fundamental identities, is the core of Mouthpiece, an inventively unique exploration of the divided self, directed by Patricia Rozema and created by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava.
Mouthpiece begins with Cassie receiving a call to tell her that her mother has died. Over the next 48 hours she struggles to come up with a eulogy, battling with conflicting emotions towards her mother and, even more so, with herself. The film movingly presents the complexities of grief, whilst also using the tragedy to explore the duality of womanhood and female consciousness.
In a Q&A with the female-led film charity Bird’s Eye View, Sadava explained the genesis of the film’s central idea: “Once we started writing, we realized there were so many complex layers inside of our brains, opposing voices and congruent voices but many, many voices, that we realized we needed to have more than one person playing one person, as opposed to each of us embodying a whole woman.” She added, “we started to explore how we could represent the many voices in one person’s head by having them have more than one body”.
The male gaze can be a central topic within a modern woman’s duality, and the film overtly addresses this throughout. When a man in the street catcalls Cassandra, one half of her responds angrily and tells him to “go fuck [him]self”, and the other smiles and thanks him. The moment presents the complex dichotomy of how we women react in these situations, but also how we feel we should react, and whether to be flattered or offended. It is a great example of everyday female objectification, and how perhaps part of us might enjoy the attention, whilst the other rejects it as harassment. These moments of conflicting responses so astutely highlight the voices that can war against each other in our minds.
Our emotional responses to events and situations can be multifaceted and often contradictory. Cassandra dissects the male gaze in a particularly poignant scene: “I imagine there are cameras, with men behind the cameras, spying on me. I imagined how I would look to them – a girl who doesn’t even know she’s being looked at”. This line examines film theorist Laura Mulvey’s idea that a woman’s purpose is her “to be looked-at-ness”, merely a passive object to the male voyeur. The flashes of light and sounds of a camera shutter as she looks at herself in the mirror poignantly emphasise this.
The duality of the female psyche is also explored through the gender roles we internalise from a young age. We see Cassandra’s mother reading her “Beauty and the Beast”. The two adult Cassandras sit in front of the scene and commentate on the story. One half of her is clearly unimpressed with the story’s misogynistic undertones: “OK, so a guy traps a girl in a cage and when he finally lets her out she throws herself at his feet in delight”. She highlights the damaging portrayal of female passivity and subservience: “if she just keeps loving and loving this asshole then he will stop abusing her, she’ll get her greatest and only aspiration which is marriage, and he’ll be magically transformed into a generous, respectful, non-rapey prince”. The other, responds defensively: “do you have to ruin everything? I liked being a princess OK?” I related strongly to this scene, and my own internal conflict with similar subjects. Some of my own favourite films, when closely examined, can be deeply problematic in their representation of women. I wrote an essay on the inherent sexism of James Bond films, but I absolutely loved playing a Bond girl at a Casino Royale event. Mouthpiece astutely presents these everyday internal dualities, and indicates that it is normal to have divided opinions about certain issues within your own mind. There is a simultaneous instinct to protect beloved childhood fairy tales, whilst also looking at them through a modern and feminist lens. Do these stories promote damaging gender stereotypes, or is it political correctness gone mad? Mouthpiece relatably presents how it is possible to think both at the same time.
Female sexuality can also be a divisive theme, as are the conflicting attitudes towards sexual behaviours. During a scene in which one Cassandra watches the other having sex, the collective Cassandra is self-critical of the noises she makes: “come on, where did you learn that? It sounds fake”. The scene is effectively a comment on performative femininity, and learned sexual behaviours (ie, those heard in porn). The Cassandras interchangeably swap positions, one becoming the observer, and the other the observed. They take turns to comment on the other, which creatively demonstrates our own critical voice and internal monologue.
Sometimes the Cassandras move in unison, perfectly choreographed on their tandem bicycle, or simply flopping into bed, and other times they separate and divide, powerfully embodying the fractured self. Upon hearing the news of her mother’s death, one Cassandra breaks down, crying and banging her head against the wall, while the other appears numb and silently stoic. When their brother arrives, one comforts him affectionately, and the other rolls her eyes and walks away, unable to cope with physical affection. There is a beautiful shot of the two women lying in the bath, limbs entangled and intertwined. It then suddenly cuts to them thrashing around and struggling to come up for air, a powerful visual metaphor for Cassandra’s inner turmoil.
The two Cassandras are interchangeable, and do not represent “good” and “bad”. Sadava noted the filmmakers’ frustration at certain film reviewers who tried to reduce them to a binary. But their creation of Cassandra’s divided self is far more complexly intelligent than the common “angel and devil” trope. Neither one is presented as being the “correct” version. “We defiantly declare that that’s not how our brains work – our brains work in a myriad of ways where it’s always switching and changing, and there’s no division of black and white.”
Writer and star Nostbakken composed all of the film’s music, which is performed entirely by herself and co-writer-turned-star Sadava. During the Q&A, Nostbakken described wanting to create “the unfiltered, unadulterated woman’s voice”. The purity of the unaccompanied vocals further emphasises the film’s overarching theme: the female voice. The melodies are both dissonant and harmonious, as are their female counterparts.
Mouthpiece originally presents one woman’s journey to find her voice (or voices). It is a profoundly moving insight into both grief and female identity.
Written by Gala Woolley
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