A Woman Under the Influence

Essential Viewing

Cassavetes creates affecting cinema out of the banal and the intimate.

Lara Moran

Watching movies is, to me, an exercise in disappointment. I have tried to find ways to explain to other people that this attitude doesn’t stem from a fundamental aversion to the medium, but rather from foolish optimism and a love for cinema. I think the best description I’ve come across is literary critic Philip Davis’ account of reading:

‘The reader is the one that goes to a book always secretly hopeful that this time this work might be the work, offering revelation. He or she knows well enough, of course, that it is naïve to think so; but such is the primal ancient drive for the reader as an incorrigible hunter for meaning that the desire for the message abides, even though no literal answer could possibly suffice.’

To approach all films from this position means that they are doomed to dissatisfy – except those that sometimes come close and scratch the surface of this hidden meaning, blind-siding you with a glimpse of an ideal you always felt could possibly exist.

I last had this experience when I saw ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ for the first time. Although the word ‘authentic’ is pompous and has slippery connotations, it is hard not to feel that director John Cassavetes was it – the real deal, the genuine article. Born in 1929, Cassavetes is now heralded a pioneer of American independent cinema. He was an obsessive, who used his earnings as a successful actor (in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, among others) to fund his own directorial efforts. His films were usually shot on a tight budget, in collaboration with family and friends. ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ (1974) stars his wife Gena Rowlands, as well as his mother and mother-in-law; worried that studio investors might want to change the script, he even mortgaged his own house to fund the feature. If you are familiar with the style of his movies, it’s a biography that makes sense – the details of his passionate anti-studio sentiment and financial struggles all clicking into place – but I’ll admit that none of this particularly interested me when I first watched A Woman Under the Influence. What honestly drew me to the film was the sound of his name, which had always impressed me as distinctly pleasing to the ear and a vague notion that it was a classic film I ought to have seen.

The plot follows housewife Mabel Longhetti (Rowlands), whose behaviour over the course of the film becomes increasingly erratic and strange until her husband Nick (Peter Falk) commits her to an institution. She returns to her family six months later – if she has changed, it is barely noticeable and in no way for the better. It is difficult to give a more detailed summary of Mabel’s breakdown, which unfolds so gradually and organically that it becomes impossible to pin down any single moment when things start to go wrong.

Like any story ostensibly about insanity, the movie must first establish an understanding of ‘reality’ and so it opens not on Mabel, but on Nick, working on a construction site on the outskirts of LA. The roughness of manual labour and male friendship make for a striking first scene. Cassavetes excels at depicting a type of masculinity that, for all of its flaws, is charismatic and compelling. When Nick has to work overtime and brings home his entire crew the next morning, Mabel welcomes them into the house, but her eager-to-please attitude is strained and she misjudges what is expected of her. Nick, himself awkward and unsure of how to deal with his wife’s behaviour, rebukes her in front of the other men.

We can gather that Mabel’s insanity stems from a longing to transcend these realities of patriarchal expectation and working-class life, but to state it in such broad terms is to do a disservice to the visceral emotional power of the film. Nick and Mabel resist easy categories of villain or victim, and instead offer a portrait of a troubled relationship that, despite all of the pain it inspires, is still the most meaningful personal connection that these characters have.

Rowlands’ performance is virtuosic and perfectly captures this tension. Critic Pauline Kael writes:

‘Rowlands externalizes schizophrenic dissolution. Mabel fragments before our eyes: a three-ring circus might be taking place in her face. Rowlands’ performance is enough for half a dozen tours de force, a whole row of Oscars – it’s exhausting.’

Yet I think it is exactly this quality of excess and Acting with a capital ‘A’ that make the movie as compelling as it is. With its dynamic camerawork and arresting performances, A Woman Under the Influence veers between perfect realism and a theatrical, truer-than-life quality. Cassavetes harnesses this strange stylistic dissonance to create affecting cinema out of the banal and the intimate – a moving and often disturbing story about love, betrayal and the tenderness we owe each other.

[A Woman Under the Influence and other Cassavetes films are available to Cambridge students for free via Kanopy.]


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