Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Every film since 1959’s Shadows feels like a warm up act for this masterpiece. Cassavetes frequently played with the themes of infidelity and crumbling marriages, as well as featuring characters whose grip on sanity was weak to say the least. Once again we have Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands as the female lead and alongside her is Peter Falk as the harried husband. Both actors bring the naturalism that Cassavetes strove to have in all his films. This is a film born out of emotional truth, given a framework and allowed to grow and stretch in the directions it finds comfortable. There’s a lot changing aesthetically in Cassavetes’ work at this point, bits of artifice are becoming more apparent, most notably a soundtracks that doesn’t come from music in the environment. The dialogue is delivered with a real tongue though, people stutter, people start into a sentence only to abandon it half way through. In the same way Altman created naturalistic satires, Cassavetes was defining the naturalistic slice of life drama.

Nick Longhetti (Falk) is a construction worker in Southern California who is forced to spend most of the day away from his family. His wife, Mabel (Rowlands), is a frenzy of a mother, both desperately wanting intimacy with her husband but terrified to leave her kids for one night. Over a period of a few days, it becomes more and more obvious that Mabel is suffering from a complete mental breakdown. Her moods are changing on a dime, she is forgetting the names and faces of people she has known for years, and she is so angry with Nick all the time. How this family deals with mental illness is presented in a brutally honest way. There’s no heroes in this film, only very damaged people. While Mabel’s condition is more obvious, it becomes apparent by the end of the film that Nick’s grasp on sanity may be just as weak, he’s just learned how to hide it better.

The core of the film is Gena Rowlands’ performance. Rowlands is one of those beautiful leading women you see rarely in Hollywood now. There’s a lot of pretty faces in the movies that hit your cineplex, but its not often they carry the depth of acting chops Rowlands shows off so effortlessly in A Woman. Not even Nicole Kidman, who has followed a similar career of offbeat films, can rise above the coldness of her portrayals. While it would be easy to make Mabel out as either cold or over the top, Rowlands walks an incredibly fine line with the intent to show that Mabel is a loving wife and mother. She demands that the audience withhold from judging the character and let her stand on her own. The structure of the story starts us in the last few days before Mabel is committed, and Nick has suspected something. Nick uses physical violence to “smack it out of her”. Cassavetes seems to be making a statement against the macho conceit of the time (and sadly even still today) that a woman needed to be handled like a child. If his films are anything to go on, in Husbands he seems to be stating that the true adult children are the men, with their unease when dealing with the pain of reality and mortality.

It’s hard to watch a Cassavetes film and not think about Mad Men. These films of the early 1970s feel like many of the character types from that series and possibly previews of where they might be headed emotionally. Mabel came across as very much in the same situation as Betty Draper, yet the other end of the spectrum. Mabel is very much a blue collar girl, and she has an effervescence of life that makes her a great wife and mother and charming flirt to the workers her husband brings home from time to time. Betty is an East Coast blue blood, who sees the people around her as fitting into a personal caste system established by a cold, intolerant mother. Yet as drastically different as these women’s backgrounds and personalities are, they are victims of the 1950s culture. They were young and pretty then, and were objects for men to have. Their identities revolved around being a wife and eventually a mother. Each of them breaks down in their own way: Mabel literally and Betty through her confrontation and divorce from Don. Cassavetes has to applauded for making a film so complex and honest about women in his society, when from an entertainment standpoint it went against everything that works.

Next up: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

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