Originally written for the stage in 1972, Not I is one of Beckett's most mesmerizing and disturbing pieces. A woman's mouth is isolated on the stage, locked in place with the rest of her face and body shrouded in darkness. She is identified only as "Mouth." Through a torrential stream of monologue, we discover that the woman nearing seventy years of age, possibly even dying has remained silent most of her life, since being thrust prematurely into the world from her mother's loveless womb. Her sudden flood of language is a manifestation of the "buzzing" in her head, an almost involuntary act, an autobiographical stream of babelogue with the "half the vowels wrong." Significantly, she refuses to adopt the first-person pronoun, insisting on referring to the subject of her story as "she." In the stage play, Mouth's frantic confession is witnessed by the silent Auditor, a shrouded figure who grows increasingly less patient with the her "vehement refusal to relinquish the third person." Like many of Beckett's characters, Mouth's hysterical need to talk, keep talking defers the act of self-identification, the awareness of "I" that denotes accountability among the ruins of a fallen world.
While the actual content of Not I is unsettling in a familiar Beckettian sort of way, what really gives the work its power to disturb is the unforgettable image of Mouth. Seen up-close for an extended period of time, we become hyper-aware of every little movement: the gnashing of teeth, the rolling and flapping of the tongue, the ebb and flow of saliva, the fleshy gymnastics of the lips. With her body negated and her whole being restricted to this single orifice, Mouth becomes invested with an almost hallucinatory sense of intensity, even carnality; her flickering movements the living synecdoche for an absent body. Indeed, given her first angry words a bitter and self-pitying account of her birth it is impossible not to conflate the isolated mouth with a vagina, a relationship much explored in Beckett criticism. But the eerie superimpositions do not stop there, for the longer we watch (and listen to) Mouth talk, laugh, and scream, the more we perceive other bodily elements as well, from the opening of the eye to the clenching of the fist. Like ghostly overtones to live music, these almost subliminal transformations arise from the interplay of material and instrument, and in Not I Beckett achieves a remarkable collusion of speech and form. Mouth is intimately connected to the words spewing forth: her very contours and motions subordinated to the demands of articulation, she provides a physical embodiment of language itself. To fall silent to shut, to close up would seem a kind of suicide, further underlining that Beckettian compulsion to break the silence with a constant stream of language, despite the futility of communicating anything meaningful.
Realizing that the visceral impact of Mouth was more powerful at close range, Beckett adapted Not I for film in 1977, dropping the part of Auditor altogether. In the first American version for television, produced with the loose cooperation of Beckett, the mouth belonged to actress Margo Lee Sherman, her surrounding facial features blacked out with greasepaint. Filmed in black and white, her mouth filled the entire television screen, its position fixed throughout the entire monologue.
Like many of the directors involved with the "Beckett on Film" project, Neil Jordan seized the opportunity to re-imagine his selected play in the context of modern cinema. Like Beckett before him, Jordan discarded the role of Auditor and filmed it all in one take; but there the similarities end. First of all, in a touch that Beckett surely would have abhorred, we see Julianne Moore in full, taking her chair before her monologue begins. Nor is her face blacked out by make-up or technology; although we see only her mouth for the rest of the film, the surrounding flesh is visible as well a featureless blank almost as striking as the traditional blackness. Eschewing a single, head-on frame, Jordan instead employs five cameras, each at a different angle around the front and sides of Moore's face. Certainly the most radical departure, the multiple cameras allow the director to take a more active and creative role in the editing process. Jordan takes advantage of this with his usual directorial skill, and he uses the multiple angles to highlight and clarify the different moods and themes of Mouth's monologue.
Well...I'm sure none of the above makes the purists happy, and I doubt that any amount of arguing that Jordan's liberties are well-taken is likely to get them to change their minds. But it would be a sad mistake for even a purist to dismiss this version of Not I out of hand. First of all, there's Julianne Moore. Second of all Julianne Moore. And third....?
From the beleaguered housewife of Safe to the soon-to-be-widowed trophy wife of Magnolia, Julianne Moore has made a career of playing distraught but compelling characters, women burning with an intensity that belies their outward fragility. (Her "Shut the fuck up" mantra in Magnolia, one of the film's highlights, has a not un-Beckettlike appeal.) After working with Neil Jordan in The End of the Affair, the director saw in her the perfect protagonist for Not I, and decided that the world could do with a more intimate look at Ms. Moore's lovely mouth.
It was a wise decision. Julianne Moore gives an unforgettable performance, each rapid-fire word crisp and clean, her steely tone conveying a fierce bitterness that barely conceals the naked pain underneath. Moore's Mouth belongs to an angry woman, a woman who seems less confused by her sudden testimony as she is furious that it took sixty what? seventy? years in coming. In control of every syllable passing her lips, Moore is attuned to the undercurrents of her torrential stream as well, from the emotions Mouth is unable to articulate to the truths she's trying to evade. Her brittle laughter after "merciful" and "God" is chilling sharp bursts of contained hysteria, like release valves for a system under intense and sudden pressure. Unlike Margo Lee Sherman's Mouth, who succumbs to her own mounting momentum, Moore appears more keenly self-aware, especially when denying the first person: her angry repetitions of "No! . . . She!" are more determined than desperate. One gets the impression that Moore's Mouth wants to detach and objectify her weakness in order to expel it.
A brilliant play, an inventive director, and a wonderful actress for those willing to overlook the liberties it takes, Not I is definitely one of the highlights of the "Beckett on Film" project.
Beckett on Film Project
Blue Angel Films, 2001, 4-DVD set; $149.95.
BoF "Not I" Page -- From the Beckett on Film homepage, this sections contains a synopsis, images, and talent biographies. (The banner image above is adapted from this site.)
Channel 4 "Not I" Page -- From the Channel 4 Learning site, this page contains some commentary on the play's structure, characters, and theme. Recommended.
IMDB "Not I" Page -- The entry for Not I at the Internet Movie Database.
Review of Sherman's "Not I" -- The Apmonia review of the first US television production of Not I, starring Margo Lee Sherman as Mouth.