‘I knew that women were people. And I knew society would catch up’

Patricia Rozema’s film Mouthpiece shows the world still needs her daredevil vision

Mouthpiece: Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava

Mouthpiece: Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava

 

It’s time to discover – or revisit – the films of Patricia Rozema. In an era when major studios are clamouring for more equitable representation, Rozema, a feminist lesbian daredevil filmmaker of three decades and counting, is still one of the most audacious, original talents in cinema.  

“I knew that women were people,” she laughs. “And I knew that homos were people. And I knew that society would catch up. The cat was out of the bag. Film – because it was so expensive – always lagged behind music and other arts. But, because production is quicker, it’s a little bit more open now.”

There comes a very comical moment in Mouthpiece, the new film from the Canadian auteur, when Cassie, the main character as played by two actors, begins critiquing herself having sex. “What is that face you’re making right now?” snorts one half of the psyche. “Where did you learn that?”

“I thought that would be fun – and telling – to show how we watch ourselves, even when you’re supposed to be at your most unguarded,” says Rozema. “And in fact, that’s when people maybe watch themselves more. How sad is that? It’s one of the reasons I stayed in Canada and didn’t accept irritations from Hollywood. They didn’t want me. They don’t want female leads. They wanted to be shoehorning some famous guy into the story. Yes, I would love to work on a beautiful representation of a man, but that’s been done for the whole history of cinema. You’ve got it covered. Why do you need me?

“There was a moment in my life when I realised people learn from fiction; they learn how to be, who to admire, what is cool. And women learned how to be women through male-created women. The women we wanted to be? Those were guys telling us how to be. ”

That’s a question Rozema has contemplated for quite some time. White Room, her second feature, reworked the kind of voyeurism and violence that defined Blue Velvet into a genre-bending contemplation of the performative aspects of personality. Oddly, the film, which features the late Margot Kidder and a gingerbread house, feels more contemporary than it did when it premiered in 1994. And commendably, by Rozema’s recollection, it was huge in Brazil and very well-received in Ireland thanks to the efforts of this newspaper’s late critic, Michael Dwyer.

“I feel like the issues of White Room have become more important rather than less important over time,” she says. “It has a person who is struggling with images and self-presentation, and she hires someone else to do that for her. So it’s the relationship between what we present in the world and the fragile, possibly neurotic person who is the artist behind. I have to laugh at my audacity of my youth because it starts out as one genre, then shifts, and then shifts into the mother of all genres: the fairytale. I think the audience got a shock after the nice, warm, welcoming comedy. But if someone told me they did that in a movie, I’d like to see that movie.”

Late to the party

Rozema was born into a Dutch Calvinist family in a remote city in Ontario. She dimly recalls a birthday party screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs during childhood. Save for that experience, she didn’t darken the door of a cinema until she was 16. A baptism of fire awaited. 

“Cinema was not part of our lives; it was not somewhere we went to,” she recalls. “And then I went with a boyfriend to see a grown-up movie of the world. It was The Exorcist. And I thought to myself: no wonder this wasn’t encouraged! It really did a number on me, because at that time I believed that the Devil was real. It was not just make-believe for me. It really rattled me. And I thought all films must be like that.

“To this day I still can’t bear any kind of supernatural horror. I just don’t want it in my head. I don’t want those sounds or pictures. I feel like my brain would be soiled. I can watch human violence until the cows come home. If someone is slicing off another person’s nose, I can put my film-maker hat on and think: oh, that’s a good prosthetic, and of course they have to cut there.”  

Patricia Rozema: ‘The Exorcist really did a number on me, because I believed that the devil was real.’ Photograph: Suzi Pratt/Getty
Patricia Rozema: ‘The Exorcist really did a number on me, because I believed that the Devil was real.’ Photograph: Suzi Pratt/Getty

There are interesting parallels with Paul Schrader, who similarly didn’t go to a cinema until adulthood. Both directors attended Calvin University in Michigan.

“We know each other,” says Rozema. “I watched [Schrader’s 2017 film] First Reformed and that slow dolly into a church, and I felt this wave of dread, of being shut down. Whatever had a hold of you in your youth, has a hold on you. Religion still affects my relationship with money, my relationships, my confidence. And when I listen to Paul, I know there is someone who feels the same way. And he puts his brilliant spin on all his films.”

Rozema began her career in current affairs with CBC’s nightly news programme The Journal. In 1985, after taking a five-week night course in film production, she made a 16mm short, Passion: A Letter, which won her the second prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. She worked as an assistant director on David Cronenberg’s The Fly while writing her first feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Made for just $350,000, it became an international sensation, scooping the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes in 1987. 

“My first film,” says Rozema. “it goes to Cannes. It’s sold to 40 countries. It’s the opening night of the Toronto Film Festival. It’s doing well. And the distributor says to my dad, ‘Maybe we should have a screening in Sarnia, Ontario.’ Which is where I grew up. My dad says, ‘That’s okay.’ He knew it had a homosexual side to it. I feel like I’m betraying them saying that. Because he was one of the most sophisticated, philosophical, interesting people you could meet. But he had no interest in fiction and no inkling of why you would make things up.” 

Full of surprises

Rozema’s career has continued to throw pleasing curveballs. Who could have expected the delightful Great Depression-era children’s film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, or her Emmy-nominated script for  Grey Gardens, an adaptation of the Maysles Brothers documentary, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. There was a foray into Beckett with Happy Days for the 2001 attempt to capture the playwright’s work on film. 

“Working with the Beckett text and with Rosaleen Linehan on the top of a volcano in the Canary Islands was one of the peak experiences of my life – because the text is so thrilling, as none of the sentences are finished,” she says. “So you’re always filling in what she actually means. And I felt a huge connection to that character because I tend to wake up and go: another heavenly day; even if my legs have been chopped off. It’s more useful and more fun to be that way in life.”

Even Rozema was surprised, however, when in 1999 she found herself reworking Jane Austen’s weediest heroine for a big-screen version of Mansfield Park. With characteristic intellectual rigour, the film-maker worked the first anti-slavery legislation, brought in by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, into the text; his granddaughter was a cousin of Jane’s and a frequent visitor to the Austen household.

“I was motivated by the inclusion of the Mansfield judgment and a critique of colonialism,” says the director. “I tried to tell the story with the brilliance and humour and the freshness of Austen, but to address what I really, truly believe was an undercurrent in her writing. Of course, all the scripts I get sent to me now – still – are period pieces. I’ve told my agent no, I really want to address the life we live now.”

Happily, Mouthpiece is very much that and very much the “urban non-genre” that Rozema described in a 2000 interview with The Irish Times as her natural terrain. The film is based on a theatrical play by (and starring) Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. It centres on Cassandra, a woman as she struggles, sometimes numbly, sometimes raucously, with the arrangements for her mother’s funeral. Together they swap public and private roles, wrestle and burst into musical numbers.

Cassandra is played by both Nostbakken and Sadava, the pair who originated the play (which has subsequently been transplanted to the US by producer Jodie Foster) as she goes to war with herself. It was a world away from adapting the carefully calibrated – and estate-policed – Beckett play. 

“Eighty per cent of what I’ve prepared with the cinematographer is what happens but that final 20 per cent is just a riot,” says Rozema. “With Amy and Nora especially. They were so free. When I was shooting them in a bathtub, I shouted: ‘Drown her!’ When they were walking down the street, I’d shout: ‘Fight!’ And they did.

“I felt very happy through the process. I remember driving to work one day and thinking, I just want to shoot like this every day until I die.”

Mouthpiece is available to stream from March 12th

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