A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Written & Directed by John Cassavetes
If you have never watched much outside of classic American cinema, even the supposedly envelope-pushing independent film industry that came to prominence in the 1990s, you will likely be turned off by A Woman Under the Influence at first. Writer-director-actor John Cassavetes broke the accepted forms & structures of filmmaking in ways that critics were highly divided at the time of their release. Some could see the brilliant mind at work while others became quickly frustrated at scenes that linger and editing that doesn’t follow the smooth narrative flow we have become accustomed to. I can imagine your average MCU stan wouldn’t know what to make of these pictures at all. They don’t provide easy morals, and their characters are so complex you find yourself always seesawing between frustration and sadness over them.
Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is a Los Angeles housewife who sends off her three kids in anticipation of her husband Nick (Peter Falk), a construction foreman who is worked ragged. We quickly learn something is wrong; Mabel’s behavior seems off, which Nick mentions to a coworker. She drinks heavily and, after learning Nick won’t be home that night, goes to a bar and ends up sleeping with another man. When Nick can finally come home, things fall apart even further, Mabel pushed to the point of a psychological break. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way out of this other than to confront the mental health issues of his wife, but Nick feels inadequate in dealing with them. A professional is called in, a doctor and a family friend, which only intensifies Mabel’s psychological stress. Nick sinks deeper into his guilt and is revealed as a total coward unable to do anything for his wife and family with little hope on the horizon.
A Woman Under the Influence is a film about gender & class but not in any reductive sense. This picture tackles these ideas from every possible angle, barreling forward into the most complicated and complex parts. Mabel is a product of the 1950s good little housewife ideology. She came of age during that time. Now she is an aging wife and mother with no identity outside of those titles. Nick is also a product of this society which informs his constant embarrassment of his wife, shouting at her in front of guests. There’s a part of him that wasn’t wholly warped by this conformist way of thinking, and you can see that manifest as guilt on his face. He isn’t let off the hook, though, as Nick becomes a feckless person by the end of the picture. He does a lot of yelling, a typical male response to stress, but it amounts to nothing. There’s no evidence he can parent, and he certainly fails as a supportive spouse.
The film is structured into two pieces: the events leading up to Mabel’s commitment to a mental hospital and when she returns home. The first part is longer, and it lays out the argument for why Mabel never really had a chance in this environment. The most apt moment in the film to understand what it is like to be her is when she begins behaving strangely in front of Nick’s coworkers. Nick loudly shouts her down, creating an awkward silence in the room. He follows this up by having the gall to tell his wife, “Just be yourself.” There’s this conflict in that Mabel’s natural personality is volatile, overflowing with life, which is likely what drew Nick to her when they were young. Yet, she has had her identity submerged, and Mabel as an individual now simply doesn’t exist. Instead, she serves as a wife and mother, and hostess.
This does not mean the film is concerned with castigating Nick. Instead, Cassavetes embraces the chaos of simply being human and how difficult specific experiences can be. There’s no judgment cast against anyone’s behavior, just endless empathy for these people in a situation that would break any of us. Nick wants to be a good husband and father, but he is also constantly pressured by his unseen boss to work late into the night or jump out of bed when called to report to emergency repairs that need to be done. His frustrations are valid; how he expresses them to his wife and children is not. At one point, he screams that he’ll kill Mabel and “these sons-o’-bitchin’ kids.” If you ever experienced a volatile domestic situation, you can immediately connect with the horror of a moment like that. Nick ultimately doesn’t do it, but this explosion of his frustration is both scary and completely understandable.
Nick’s mother, played by Cassavetes’ mother Katherine, is also a presence who bides her time, but when she speaks up, it hits hard. When Nick wavers about sending Mabel off to a mental health facility, Katherine bellows that this woman is crazy and won’t let her anywhere near her grandchildren. You can immediately sympathize with Mabel, who does not have a stronghold over her emotions, feeling threatened at being kept away from her children. If her identity is tied to these children’s existence, then taking them from her isn’t so simple, you are fracturing her sense of self even further. But Katherine is right. You have to be very careful when exposing children to someone going through a distressing mental health episode. Katherine is hugely inarticulate in how she expresses this, but that tracks with the period and her social class in how she understands what is happening. I wouldn’t expect a working-class American person in the 1970s who came of age in the 1940s or earlier to really know how to sensitively talk about the subject. Their perspective is going to be grounded in reactionary thinking.
Cassavetes fills his frame with chaos. It might be the set-up of the home, with the couple’s bedroom sharing the same space as the dining room. The disorder could be the camera following the kids as they escape their bedroom to comfort their mother after their father tells them to go to sleep. In the third act, there’s an image that cuts through me like a knife. Mabel goes into the dining room where her children have been kept for her homecoming. They paw at her, expressing their love, how they missed her, how they need her. Mabel’s face shows hints of a connection with her children and fear, terror at being drowned again, losing herself. She exits the dining room, closing the sliding doors behind her. Through the gauzy curtains on these doors, we see the silhouette of one child pressed against the glass. Mabel has her back to the door and looks so broken, unsure of what she does next.
The film concludes without Mabel or Nick, or anyone coming to a greater understanding of what has happened. He unleashes a brief but harmful explosion of violence, knocking his wife to the floor. Mabel gets back up and seems to have been shaken to “her senses.” But the mood is not one of clarity but in a momentary submission. Nick is obviously mentally unwell; he sees a coworker get terribly injured and has to keep plowing ahead. He realizes how little of a connection he has with his children, not in the way he sees their love for Mabel. We walk away from the movie without knowing what happens next. It’s straightforward to infer where this couple goes from here. They live in quiet misery until they die or someone decides to divorce the other, embittering them both or suicide (as one scene in the film alludes to).
A Woman Under the Influence is foremost a picture about lovers at war. They don’t know why they are fighting, they genuinely love each other, but the dissonance in their environment also makes them want to destroy each other. Few modern films manage to capture the aching tragedy of trying to love another person in a world where you don’t even know yourself and thus don’t understand why someone could love you. Cassavetes captures it all so brutally and tenderly.