A black screen accompanied by soft gasps and moans opens Below Her Mouth and gives viewers a hint of what they’ll be seeing for the next hour and a half. The sequence ends and the mystery is gone as we meet the sources of these noises: Dallas (Erika Linder, serving Kristen Stewart levels of broodiness) and her current girlfriend, Joslyn (Mayko Nguyen). However, the scene doesn’t end well — Dallas almost immediately breaks things off with Joslyn and leaves, only saying she’s “No good for her.” Dallas is distant and angsty, until she meets Jasmine (Natalie Krill), a very pretty, very much engaged fashion editor. After a steamy first kiss in a bar, Jasmine reveals the soft spots hiding beneath Dallas’ tough exterior and a torrid, tumultuous affair begins. Sparks fly, and you can probably figure out the rest right?
Well, it’s more complicated than that. The truth is, that while Below Her Mouth subverts a lot of traditional, heterosexual romantic conventions through its sapphic pairing. The star-crossed lovers, the brooding boy/gentle girl, even the repairman/wife trope often used in porn can all be found in Dallas and Jasmine’s relationship. Although this subversion makes the film stand apart, it has some problems. Well, a lot of problems. For example, a good majority of Mouth is devoted to gratuitous sex scenes which is fine, but when the sex feels like it’s 85% of the movie, is there really a plot?
The short answer is sort of. Dallas and Jasmine throw themselves into each other’s arms right away, but we’re not given much beyond their lust as a reason for this. The chemistry between Linder and Krill is nice. Both actors can be a little stilted in their performances, but I found that it dovetailed well with their characters’ situation — new love can be awkward, and a forbidden new love especially so. That being said: cute, awkward chemistry can only go so far in creating something tangible on screen. Linder and Krill exchange bedroom eyes and coy giggles outside of the bedroom, but the fireworks fizzle out by the time they’re between the sheets again. There is one scene where the two spend the day on a pier and ferry exchanging backstories and experiences, but aside from this Dallas and Jasmine’s relationship is largely constructed through their lust.
While the film boasts an impressive female-centric crew and cast (wonderful!), and director April Mullen sought to “eliminate the male gaze” from Mouth (an admirable goal) it, unfortunately, did not succeed. This movie was driven by women and attempts to focus on women experiencing pleasure, but it doesn’t feel quite as liberating as it could be. The sex scenes often border on pornographic and serve no purpose in the narrative. For example, after the film’s climax, an emotionally distraught Dallas wanders drunkenly through the city streets, finds her way to a strip club, and then proceeds to finger a stripper who’s connected to her somehow. We only know about their relationship via hushed whispers from the bar staff, and an opportunity for character development is wasted. It feels exploitative at times and ultimately mistakes quantity for quality.
However, Mouth does have some shining moments. For instance, Mullen’s direction and the editing work of Michelle Szemberg shine through the smut. The scene I mentioned earlier at the pier, in particular, is a wonderful example of how the film manages to build emotional intimacy through its formal structure. The tight close-ups, fluid edits, and focus on the actors’ faces fill in the blanks left behind by a sparse script and make the romance more believable than the physical scenes peppered throughout the film. The cinematography too is gorgeous. Director of Photography Maya Bankovic captures the cityscape of Toronto well. From its gloomy gray days to its neon-drenched nightlife to pouring rain, it all looks really good on the screen.
Unfortunately, the editing and cinematography can’t redeem Mouth from its flaws. In addition to hit or miss chemistry between Krill and Linder, questionable amounts of sex, and a flimsy plot, the script suffers from sometimes lifeless dialogue. There are some standout moments, namely when Dallas decides not to talk about her coming out because it’s not a one-time thing. Largely though, the dialogue in the film does nothing to save it.
To sum it up, Below Her Mouth wants to be an intense, erotic love story, but it is crushed beneath the weight of its own content before it can sweep you off of your feet.
Below Her Mouth is now showing in the U.S. in select cities.
Special thanks to The Austin Gay + Lesbian International Film Festival for hosting this screening! In addition to hosting screenings such as this one, aGLIFF works hard to promote LGBTQIA+ representation year round. For more info, check out their website at http://agliff.org/.