A Woman Under the Influence
Cassavetes’ Lunatic-Comic Pathos

by Barbara and Leonard Quart

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 8-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

We live in a country where psychology is a growth industry, and the women’s movement is a staple of electoral politics and the afternoon soap opera. Why then is it such a surprise to find a major U.S. film these days that is entirely engrossed in moment-by-moment psychological truth? A film that gives its deepest concern to its central woman character? It must be that through Kubrick, Altman, Peckinpah and company, we have learned to expect misogyny or indifference to women in our best directors. We've learned to expect work to be stylized and mythologized rather than resting on the particularity and nuance of human connection and fragmentation.

So John Cassavetes, from FACES to his new film A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, has been swimming against the U.S. cinematic current, though oddly enough very much at one with deeper central currents of U.S. culture. And in this latest film, Cassavetes’ commitment to people’s emotions has come fully into its own. He had made his marked idiosyncratic style work from start to finish. He has made a film that you want (with some embarrassment) to call heartbreaking, heartwarming, “Human” , (sometimes too self-consciously and sentimentally so) like something out of the old Hollywood. A film that works with and believes in old verities like family and friendship. But there is no mistaking what world Cassavetes is coming from. His characters are crazy and anguished. His films have a shapeless and improvisational feeling of a world where control is minimal. The great redeemer is emotional intensity, which in his earlier films often has the hollowness of an exercise for an acting class. In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, however, it is all carried off with great persuasiveness.

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a love story of a troubled marriage between a working class man, Nick (played movingly by Peter Falk), and his wife Mabel (played with brilliant attention to emotional nuance by Gena Rowlands). Mabel appears to be experiencing a breakdown, though there is not much difference between her normal and abnormal behavior. The film explores the impact of her fragility, neediness, and shifts of feeling on Nick, their three children, relatives, and friends. It takes us to Nick’s sudden decision to institutionalize her, and then it follows her uncertain return to her life.

Gena Rowlands as Mabel manages luminously to capture the strangeness of madness, a woman manically talking and grimacing to herself, angrily gesticulating to strangers in the street, and punctuating her speech with incongruous raspberries. Yet she remains comprehensible to us, even beautiful, and sometimes seems merely unconventional—more spontaneous, imaginative, and intact than the people around her. But the film is not another romantic paean to madness. Mabel feels genuine pain and confusion. We see her crying out in loneliness and guilt for her mother and children; tense, insecure, compulsive around Nick’s friends; continually needing reassurance that she’s loved by Nick and the children. Still, we cannot but feel that the “normal” people are also a bit mad. This is especially so when Mabel returns from the institution to the coldly curious eyes assessing her for some sign of continued insanity, when she sits amidst the shouting of her relatives, with their angry outbursts, inappropriate comments, and lack of simple supportiveness (as they awkwardly try to be supportive). But Cassavetes avoids making any large statements about sanity and insanity or women’s alienation and submergence—question. He is a truly U.S. artist.

Cassavetes’ empathy for Mabel is so deep that we share her frantic fight against the doctor’s needle, against leaving her children and husband. We feel with her the horror of being cornered and alone. Her eloquent five-point summary of her life with her husband is lucidity itself. Yet we are continually conscious of clear signs of extreme emotional trouble. It’s a delicate balance to maintain. Because Cassavetes succeeds in maintaining it, he takes us unusually far into this terribly shaky woman’s feelings, and he makes us feel we understand more fully the breakdowns that occur around us.

The husband, Nick, conveys very movingly the burdens he must endure under these circumstances. We see the emotional distance he is able to go with Mabel because of the love and understanding they have. Though finally we also see a man overwhelmed by the demands made upon him. He is continually anxious and uncertain over Mabel’s reactions. He’s filled with nervous embarrassment over her behavior in front of his friends, especially when he perceives it as sexually provocative. Nick’s reactions shift from warm support to wild tyrannical rage, and back again. He doesn't have the words to protect himself, and he is naked confronting a condition he can't name: “She’s unusual, not crazy.” Falk plays Nick as strong, loyal, warm, confused and irrational. He’s a man who will be there at the end for Mabel despite the blood and blows, and moments of absolute despair.

Cassavetes is good with many of the minor characters as well. As always, he loves faces, fills the screen with their close ups—the strong, grizzled faces of Nick’s fellow workers around a table, singing, joking tensely, and trying to talk. A fellowship of males built on shared work and fatigue, not intellectual connection or personal intimacy. Nick is comfortable in this world, and Cassavetes is especially good at catching the warm, essentially non-verbal nature of working class male camaraderie.

There is also a great deal of general hugging in Cassavetes’ world. People are clutching at each other in misery, embracing in strained heartiness. His characters often shout instead of talking. Few characters repress what they feel, and almost none are mere types or stock figures. Mabel’s awkward yokel pick-up, surprisingly acute psychologically, Nick’s yelling mother, Mabel’s ineffectual father—each one is a distinctive creation, though Nick’s mother’s strident, unselfconscious bitchery tends to get stuck on a single note. Mabel’s father is a grey man who flees from Mabel’s hungry embrace by passing her off to her mother. When Mabel asks him to stand up for her, Cassavetes’ camera fastens on to an image of him frozen in impotence. Nothing more is said, but everything is conveyed. The image speaks to not only the present, but to the father’s failure as a source of support and security for her in the past. There are other briefly vivid figures. We see a frightened, pinched neighbor, shocked by Mabel’s playful and manic behavior with the children. A friend of Nick’s waxes nostalgic about the seashore of his boyhood. And Mabel’s mother is a big fragile, muddled and over apologetic person. The children, who are poignantly entwined in all the tumult and hysteria that goes on around them, love Mabel dearly but realize her tension and her self-lacerating need for their constant avowals of love.

Cassavetes is not an intellectual director. No larger vision informs his work than a belief in the contradictory, painful and beautiful nature of feeling, and an interest in problems confronting real people. His films are semi improvisational and involve a great deal of risk-taking on his part. When things go dead, they seem like home movies, unselective, unfocused and repetitive. But when things work, they surprise one into remarkable awareness and strong emotion. When Nick repeatedly brings the children upstairs and they keep running back down to their mother, you are first struck by the repetition’s awkwardness, and the carrying-on, and then by an immense pathos, half lunatic, half humorous. It strikes a note that is distinctively Cassavetes’ own.

Cassavetes is not interested in visual metaphors or dramatic climaxes. He wants to portray the unwieldiness of experience. At his best he expresses moments of truth about human behavior that few U.S. directors can match. In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE he never attempts to move beyond the level of concrete action and interaction. It is a strength and possibly a limit of his work. To conceive and explore the fact that reality operates on a number of levels, e.g., the social and personal, and that these work directly on each other, is outside this film’s scope. Both the working class milieu and Mabel’s role as wife and mother are treated almost incidentally. Finally, Cassavetes’ concern is with individuals. No one expresses more brilliantly than he their absurdly affecting attempts to live with themselves and each other.