A woman under the influence

Are you high or just plain crazy? Indie auteur John Cassavetes examines madness and marriage in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk
Released by Janus Films
(1974) 155 min.

When I was in film school my professors would lecture on the genius of John Cassavetes and I must admit at the time, I didn’t get it.   Recently I decided to re-watch many of the films that I was forced to see in school, curious if   five years and hundreds of films later my tastes have changed.   While I still hold the same opinion on many of those films, one I actually really enjoyed upon a second viewing was Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman under the Influence.

A Woman under the Influence explores the life and marriage of Nick and Mabel Longhetti (played by Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands) a young working class couple in 1970s Los Angeles. From the first moment Mabel appears onscreen we understand that she’s not your typical California housewife. Rushing out the front door in a wild print dress and messy up-do she’s full of nervous, manic energy as she gets her children ready for a night at her mothers.

Why is Mabel so “delicate and sensitive” as one of Nick’s co-workers comments?

As an audience we’ve been programmed to expect answers, the back story as to why a character has ended up the way they have. How many countless films have there been about the housewife who was sad because her husband or society was cruel or unjust to her?   This film never gives us such answers.   Mabel didn’t have a tormented childhood; her parents are your regular type of middle class Americans who while a tad repressed, are definitely not cruel.     Husband Nick meanwhile may get frustrated by Mabel’s unusual behavior in social settings, but he’s a hard working man who genuinely loves his wife.

So instead of learning the why as to Mabel’s demeanor the film focuses on how it affects the life around her.   We learn that Mabel is someone who is desperate to please yet completely unaware of social boundaries; as a result her heartfelt attempts to make people feel loved and accepted instead makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable. An example of this and the wonder of Rowland’s performance (that rightly earned her an Oscar nomination) is seen when a neighbor Mr. Jensen brings his children over to play with the Longhetti children. Initially just wanting to drop the children off, Mabel forces Mr. Jensen to join the strange after school party that includes tea, balloons and recreating the death sequence from Swan Lake. “Die for Mr. Jensen children!”   Mabel squeals with delight as she and the swarm of children runs frantically around the backyard. Mr. Jensen is horrified by the experience and leaves with his children as quickly as he can.

“I’m very concerned about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, and with whom or how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her. I’m sure we could have made a much more successful film if A Woman Under the Influence had depicted Mabel’s life as being rougher, more brutal; if it made statements so that people could definitely take sides…”

—John Cassavetes

This incident causes such a stir in the Longhetti household that the family wonders if Mabel should be committed. Nick is torn over the decision because he wants it both ways; he’d love it if Mabel could be a “normal” wife and mother like those of his co-workers, but he also knows that Mabel’s eccentricities are what make her unique and special. While most of Falk’s performance consists of the barking Italian husband, the private moments he shares with Rowlands where he wants her to be herself are absolutely heartbreaking.   After initially refusing Nick gives in to committing Mabel during a tense sequence when his domineering mother convinces him that it’s the best thing to do for the children.

Instead of following Mabel to the hospital the film then switches gears and focuses on Nick as he tries to live life with his wife institutionalized. What we see is that without Mabel to constantly fret over, Nick starts to go a little nutty himself. This is evident during one pathetic attempt to bond with his children where he drags them out of school and forces them to go to the beach, and then on the way home lets one sip of beer go too far and gets his pre-pubescent children drunk. Nick may be the “sane” one, but apparently he has no idea how to be a father.

When Mabel returns home in the final act of the film everyone in the family compliments her about how well she looks; her hair is down and straight and she has a conservative outfit on. But while her family may be focusing on her appearance, the audience immediately sees that the spark in Mabel is gone. By finally understanding the affect she has on people, Mabel has become a sad shell of her former self. And while Nick likes the Mabel that can sit quietly during a family dinner, he can’t bring himself to tell Mabel after the family has left he loves her anymore.

A Woman under the Influence is not an easy film. At two and a half hours some scenes feel like they go on forever, the dialogue meaningless. And just as we are given no explanation for Mabel’s condition there is no tidy conclusion to Nick and Mabel’s rollercoaster ride of a marriage. Instead of Nick and Mabel making plans for the future, the film ends with them planning a grocery list. But after watching countless films shock fill of Hollywood formula, what I didn’t understand as a teenager is how refreshing it is to watch a film where the audience is given the freedom to interpret a story themselves.   When it’s all said and done, was Mabel’s madness a deterrent to her life and marriage or did it actually make it more powerful? Why don’t you watch the film and decide for yourself.

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