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Lancette Arts Journal Review - Mouth to Mouth

by Alidë Kohlhaas, published in November 2005

Short filmmaker and script writer Alison Murray, who operates out of England, although born here, made her first feature film in 2004, which has this month made its appearance in Toronto. Mouth to Mouth (not to be confused with a Spanish film that has the same name in translation) is the story of a runaway girl in search of, let me say, herself. It stars the young Canadian actress, Ellen Page, who will also in the near future make her appearance in two US produced commercial films. Anyone who has seen Mouth to Mouth will be impressed by this youngster (she is 18 now) and perhaps be drawn to view the sci-fi, X-Men 3, and suspense thriller, Hard Candy, when they are released here.

Making the jump from short films to feature films is a daunting experience for any filmmaker. The requirements are very different, one of which is that feature film characters have to have greater depth to exist, or for the viewer to care about. Other essential are a flowing storyline, a greater concentration on the visual aspects, and, very importantly, the need for good dialogue.

It isn't usually our habit to review films or television at Lancette, although I now and then do so in my column for Seniors Review. The reason for reviewing Mouth to Mouth is simply that now and then we have to make an attempt to connect with a new generation of filmmakers, of looking at films that will give us insight into the minds of the young, who seem so disconnected from us. It isn't that they rebel for any newer reasons then we did, but they do so in ways that seem far more destructive to society, and, most of all, to themselves, then our own generation chose to express its rebellion against being put into a box. There is also another reason for why we chose to have me review this film. Its executive producer is Atom Egoyan, whom we all admire for his work as a director of opera at the Canadian Opera Company. His films have, as yet, eluded us.

So, what is Mouth to Mouth? It is part fairytale, part mythology, though it has neither the kind of ending expected from a fairytale (happily ever after) nor tragic (Greek mythology). It is mostly what has to be described as an art film as opposed to a commercial movie. But that is a superficial designation. Mouth to Mouth has all of the aspects of any modern movie in that it contains some sex, some violence, heartbreak, happiness, and whatever makes a story move forward. It only expresses these aspects in a little more lyrical manner because of the director's penchant for choreography and they way she now and then frames her shots. It might also be put into the genre of road movies as much of the action takes place on the roads through Europe.

The film opens with a young girl—we later learn her name is Sherry— standing behind a school fence, dressed in a typical British schoolgirl uniform. But, we realize right away, she is no ordinary girl. She wears a lip ring on her lower lip and dark makeup under her eyes. This girl (Ellen Page) wants to be different, she clearly wants to rebel, even if she doesn't realize that the piercing of body parts is yet another form of conformity. The next thing we know, she is on the road, hitchhiking her way through continental Western Europe, ending up in its seediest capital, Berlin.

A shirtless young man offers her a leaflet that promises homeless kids an alternative way of living, without being just another cog in a wheel. He is Tiger (August Diehl), who obviously has an eye for knowing who are the needy types that might be drawn to his group, SPARK (Street People Armed With Radical Knowledge). There is something disingenuous about this fellow, though just what isn't yet quite clear. The realization comes later when he tries to take advantage of Sherry, though she holds back at the last moment.

Sherry falls for the SPARK bait and next we see her watching a group of people demonstrating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There is now German dialogue, which will not be understood by the uninitiated, followed quickly by an obligatory anti-American remark. When spoken by Germans, especially by someone in Berlin, such remarks always come as a shock. Where would Berlin be without the Americans (and Canadians) who flew countless airlifts into Berlin to save the city from starvation, and where would Germany be today without the Marshall Plan? But, alas, we are now confronted here by a generation—both filmmaker and characters—that has little or no knowledge of these events.

In no time at all Sherry finds herself in the company of a group of street kids of a wide variety, shepherded by Harry — another shirtless male — and by his deputy, Tiger, and Dog (Diana Greenwood). She is a qualified medic who gives Naxolone to overdosed drug addicts, and also oversees a Methadone program to wean her charges of their addiction to opioids. There is a hint in this line-up at the top of who is in control. Harry (Eric Thal), the boss, gets to keep his name, while all the others have various unusual monikers. Harry offers his collected charges Shangri-La at his retreat in Portugal, an abandoned vineyard he has named Jabon de Limpias. Tiger translates this roughly as The Soap of Life although anyone who knows Spanish would say that it means more the soap that cleanses or heals the soul.

Well, okay, let's not get caught up in niggling little meanings here. What does count is that the leaflet offers this:

"We don't believe in 'mainstream bullshit, TV, parents, junk food, consumer fascism, fashion, possession and materialism, escaping through drugs that the State wants us to take to keep us numb.'"
"We do believe in 'freedom, hard work, dedication, intellectual self-defense, communal living.'"

Quite a manifesto, which, had any of the street kids real street smarts and if they read the words closely, would reveal itself as contradictory. And we get to see that contradiction quite early in the film as the group moves in vans through Europe toward a Tecno Gili Festival—just where I couldn't determine even after watching this section of the film twice. The journey does take the group through France, however, on the way to the festival. Of course, the real contradiction in Jabon de Limpias. It reeks with consumerism and ownership.

While picking food out of garbage dumpsters, the group's youngest member—a mere child—meets with a tragic end. The SPARK members are told to leave the body behind so that they will not fall into the hands of authorities. Mad Ax (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) wants to take the boy for burial to the promised Shangri-La, but after a touchingly choreographed moment, follows the dictates of Harry. Ha, do we sense the first note of rebellion against what more and more turns out to be just another way of forcing the young people into a new kind of conformity? May we even say, fascism?

Mad Ax, as it turns out, isn't really so mad, and he becomes a guiding friend to Sherry, warning her, among other things, that "trusting other people will put your ass into jeopardy every time," a warning she wished she had followed a little later on.

After the festival, where Sherry's mother turns up, hoping to find her daughter, Sherry takes off on her own, quite disillusioned with the group. But, being alone, she eventually makes her way to Jabon de Limpias in Portugal. To her dismay, she finds that her mother (Natasha Wightman) has turned up there as well, and with horror sees her transformed into an unquestioning follower of Harry. Here we get a hint of why mother and daughter do not get along, and Sherry ran away. Mother is far more needy of comfort than the child, whom she probably suffocated with her neediness.

The group is formed into a battalion of grape pickers. They work long hours, though now and then we see them enjoying themselves in a swimming pool and carrying on childish play. Those, who don't conform, are subjected to cruel punishment meted out by Harry—even if it is voted on by group members—who by now is clearly seen as a dominating, slogan-spouting bully. Even a coward, who uses humiliation to get his "charges" to fall into line. Worse, as Sherry finds out, he is the kind of despicable male, who will turn a young girl's need for comfort into a claim of seduction. He takes Sherry's virginity, then blames her for breaking the rules of 'no sex' and charges her with having made him break the rules as well. Adult responsibility isn't this guy's thing, even if he is not only three times her age, but also double her size. Sherry's punishment is cruel, but worse is to come, which leads to another tragedy. Sherry, completely disaffected—her mother had a hand in the final meting out of punishment even though she knew her own daughter was not guilty of the charges—leaves the commune with Mad Ax and Dog.

The end is not a real ending, but one left to the viewer to complete. Dog's fate is left unexplained; she does not continue with Mad Ax and Sherry after their van runs out of gas. The two younger people go happily down the road, dancing and moving along—again in well choreographed movements — as they fade into nothing. As for Dog, is she going back, or just waiting for someone to stop and give her gas?

Mouth to Mouth has its good moments. Ellen Page knows how to act. Her pouting teenager rings true as does her vulnerability and her final rebellion. The film is clearly a statement against communes as they existed in the 1980s and before, and most likely still continue to form in some way or other. Murray is using her own experiences of being a semi-homeless kid in London before she began to study dance and theatre, and then found her way into the Royal College of Art where she obtained an MA in Film Direction. But the film lacks flow; it is choppy; it contains sketchy characters; the dialogue is often trite; and it has a script that leaves the audience to guess a great deal of what it all means.

One of the strange things in this film is that we have no explanation for why Sherry has a Canadian accent, while her mother is so obviously English. It is a film that celebrates the individual, but offers no guidance as to how to achieve this state of being, and so inadvertently gives the impression that running away from home is not such a bad thing. The sex scenes are hard to look at—as they are obviously meant to be—and the nudity is without grace or eroticism—another obvious gesture. It is a dark film, yet it is often bathed in light and expresses a lyricism that is quite unexpected.

The film's real downfall is that we don't really care for most of the characters, though we loathe some of them. The final analysis is that it is a film that shows it is a first of a kind by its director, who needs more experience in writing and directing feature films. But, it also is a good guide to the mind-set of what drives today's generation of filmmakers. So, if we were to give out stars, we'd give Mouth to Mouth 3 out of 5.

There is one more comment to be made here. The end credits are almost illegible, even when zoomed into while watching the DVD of the film on a large TV screen. It is therefore not quite clear if this film is a UK-German co-production, or a UK-German-Canadian co-production. One also wonders why the film had four location crews as many of the scenes could have been shot at any location. They were so site-unspecific.

PS - Ellen Page, of course, received an Oscar nomination in 2007 for a her role in June, as well as a Golden Globe Award nomination.

Source: www.lancette-arts-journal.ca