“It just seems to me women are alone and they are prisoner by their own love. They are made prisoner if they commit to something, once they have committed it’s a torture. And a man feels that also and nobody knows how to handle it.”
– John Cassavetes from a mid 70s interview
Everyone grapples with anxiety in one form or another and the way it’s displayed in John Cassavetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is simply remarkable given the emotional intensity Gena Rowlands brings to the screen. It’s a film that will exhaust and challenge you, no doubt, but the beauty and flaw of Mabel and these characters is beyond what any Hollywood film tries to convey in their storytelling. Cassavetes loved relationships, loved people, and loved the imperfection of capturing it all. It’s magic it’s vulnerability and it’s honest.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a 1974 drama about Mabel (played by Gena Rowlands), a housewife’s emotional behavior and the drama that ensues between her husband, family, and friends. Her odd behavior could be understood today quite possibly as something linked to Borderline Personality Disorder and as the story unfolds, there comes a moment where her husband Nick (played by Peter Falk) believes she could become a threat to herself and the kids, so he decides to have her committed to an institution for six months. During that six months the film shows Nick can barely take care of the kids all by himself which is indicated in a very sporadic sequence of him and a coworker taking his kids abruptly out of school for a fun day at the beach. It’s abrasive with hilarity all embracing a man’s inability to cope with the absence of his wife but also lacking the emotional warmth she brings to the family. His domineering stature all stems back to an era where the man is the protector, hunter, and gatherer yet when it comes to raising three small kids he’s going to do it in his own brusque way. So when his two sons, and daughter ask if they can drink beer because they see daddy doing it, he obliges, mind you they’re all sitting in the back of a truck heading home from the beach. Once they get home his kids are pretty much drunk and head straight to bed. On one hand it’s hilarious watching the kids stumble on the lawn yet on the other hand its kind of shocking.
I believe from this instance, Nick comes to the realization he needs and cannot continue on without Mabel’s presence. She’s a fixture to the family, even though she’s a nervous wreck, the love she struggles to express is always underpinned by Nick’s obsessive nature to fit in the confines of normalcy. Even as that’s demonstrated you realize, he’s a certain kind of crazy himself. Personally, I didn’t see Mabel as crazy and I’m sure many other women may or may not share that thought. I think its mostly about finding an outlet to express all the emotions she’s feeling and majority of the time it leads to impetus behavior.
Because when you’re bearing your soul emotionally, you can see the wear and tear of one’s own sanity. I can only imagine how Rowlands’ got through her’ performance in OPENING NIGHT, which I highly recommend watching. In fact, watch all of John Cassavetes’ films, because their electrically fueled with visceral emotions, imperfection, and gritty awareness of actors portraying the ingenuity of people battling their own human nature. Something major Hollywood studios are too apprehensive to even dive in to which is why their safe bet is making entertaining big blockbuster superhero movies because most of the time they get an average return on their investment. And yet I can’t help but feel, a bit of history repeating itself in some ways. Hollywood likes to stick with the same formula based on the success of prior films, so they utilize it until it’s no longer effective nor necessary. Then they gravitate onto something else, shift, migrate, and adapt their structure to make sure they’re successful. We’ve seen this in the old Hollywood studio system but of course thats going down a road, straying from this beautiful film. Money, money, money.
So, back to Cassavetes, my champion, a human of deep levels of expression utilizing his wife who shares his same obsession is just enchanting and such a rarity that it makes me crave that same level of deepness as it’s nearly symbiotic in some ways. Anyways, when I watch A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE I think to myself what was she under the influence of? The pressures of society? The intense love of her family? Alcohol? Creativity? Sex? Contemplation? Admiration? Anxiety? I mean this list could go on forever. And reiterating Cassavetes’ quote in the beginning, why do so many things make women feel so imprisoned by their own love? It’s such an eye-catching statement because I know there are women out there who feel this day in and day out. Some may not even acknowledge it, but continue on. If a woman is too flirty it catches men the wrong way. If a woman is too needy it also rubs them the wrong way or independent and vice versa. Is there no in between?When women are opening themselves up, and vulnerability creeps in, it’s not necessarily an invitation for a man to console her in a sexual manner or take advantage of it for his own benefit. It blurs the line between the sexes because we express an array of emotions very differently. And perhaps that’s where the breakdown happens, because men and women are desperate to meet in the middle yet, can’t for the life of them figure out how. It’s the ultimate dilemma between the sexes and probably always wills be.
I mean think about the scene where Mabel has just served spaghetti for Nick and all of his coworkers. It’s a full house of men and she’s expressing herself by talking to them, yet it gets to a point where Nick shuts it down, kicking everyone out of the house because he feels Mabel being a tiny bit flirty and he doesn’t want his guys getting any ideas. Alas, Mabel is a woman full of expression, who will march to the beat of her own drum, which is indicated when Nick says he has to work late, she’s left in an empty house drinking beer until she spontaneously leaves, heading to a bar already boozy and somewhat contemplative. So what’s does she do? Strikes up a conversation with a man, gets a little flirty, drinks a 7&7, getting more drunk and impaired and what does this guy at the bar do? Takes advantage, brings her home, and spends the night with a married woman which then creates a form of guilt within Mabel, who carries that burden straight into the morning dinner scene where Nick and his coworkers arrive. I think this creates a certain pressure for Mabel to push aside the guilt and now changes gears into that homemaker mode making sure everyone is comfortable and fed.
I wouldn’t say this film ends on a high note as it feels more like a timeout in the ringer from social norms. Mabel’s little outbursts could be perceived as acts of resistance, fighting what society wants her to be while Nick, the head of the patriarch carries a pertinent “civility” is really a farce because his outburst results in violence such as the instance when he slaps Mabel off the couch so she could suppress her emotions. It’s a heartbreaking moment because we see all three of her children huddled around their father attempting to protect her. It’s an exhausting third act but somehow lulls itself into the parents putting their kids to bed making it seem like everything is right with the world again. It’s this temporary pause that makes you question who’s the crazy one?
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is an intimate portrait of a woman not just wrestling her own emotions often conveyed in close up shots of Mabel’s face and the confusing nervousness she endures but also reveals how we’re slowly watching her suffocate under the restrictions of her gender role. Mind you this was also in the mid 70s, where social attitudes were in the midst of radical changes. Albeit, this was John Cassavetes’ masterpiece, given the emotional stamina of Rowlands’ character and the faith Peter Falk had in this film, who ended up putting half a million dollars into the project. Even after the film was finished, Cassavetes’ self distributed the film himself touring college campuses and art houses. It’s incredible the length an artist will go to make his work known and I admire that ever so greatly as he’ll always be hailed as a true harrowing spirit of an independent.