A Woman Under the Influence Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Fred Draper, Eddie Shaw
Theatrical Release Date: November 18, 1974 Criterion Collection Release Date: November 4, 2008
American director John Cassavetes once stated that “marriage isn’t a romance totally. Very sparse moments do you have to be romantic in a marriage.” His 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence beautifully reiterates his philosophy tremendously. The idea of love and relationships always had an enormous impact on all of Cassavetes’ pictures. While watching A Woman Under the Influence while being familiar with the aforementioned quote you realize how little romance is shown in the quintessential romantic way.
You see it in other ways, such as in an inarticulate gesture that could otherwise be demeaning, cooking spaghetti for ten people in the early morning, or while having the one you love so much condemned to a mental ward with hopes that it might work out for the better. Strangely, this film, along with his 1984 picture Love Streams, may be Cassavetes’ most romantic, because we sense the infinite passion and love Mable and Nick Longhetti have for one another even when they’re facing an impending storm and on the brink of catastrophe.
A Woman Under the Influence places its viewers directly in the eye of its storm. Few films are hardly confident in doing this. Maybe directors are fearful that by doing so it would scare their viewers away. Some may think that the subject they’re thrusting their viewers into is too personal or intimate. For Cassavetes, he’s neither fearful nor cautious, allowing his films to unravel until they seem naked and stripped of everything, finally revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity and love. This is why he’s part of a rare breed of directors whose films are flooded with raw emotional power.
The whirlwind that we enter is an unrelenting one. Probably developing for a while now in the Longhetti home, it’s now poised to become a massive problem and an immense force that has the potential to do damage that could last lifetimes. It’s inevitably shattering the demeanor and mental capacity of Mable Longhetti (Gena Rowlands). She’s slowly being dissembled by a mental illness that’s causing her to go crazy. We’re privy to the spurts of her craziness. We witness her rapid ticks, goofy noises she makes with her mouth and her extremely timid and self-conscious way she conducts herself, fearful that at any moment one slight incorrect movement would damage her beyond means. Rowland’s persuades us tremendously that her character is on the verge of disappearing with a grandiose performance that confines us to this character and miraculously draws us in to be part of an insanely personal journey.
When watching Mable frantically round-up her three children to get them in her mother’s car you feel as if you’re a neighbor peeking out from behind your curtains to witness such an event. To feel this way watching a film is rare. With Cassavetes’ films you’re expected to feel this way. He has an unusual cinematic talent that allows him to make his characters and locales accessible to us. Stunningly, we feel alive and a part of his pictures. With A Woman Under the Influence, we feel as if we know the Longhetti’s home, the smell of it, what room is connected to the living room, and how the spaghetti sauce is prepared. It’s this vividness and familiarity that Cassavetes creates in order to heighten his film’s drama.
After Mable rounds up her children she’s ready for her date with her husband Nick (Peter Falk in a commanding role that’s unforgettable), but she receives a phone call. He can’t make it due to overtime at work (he works for the city as a construction foreman). She accepts it and sinks into her chair in the kitchen. No emotion. She lights a cigarette, pours herself a drink, and sits there. We sit there, too, with her, terrified for her. It’s one of the film’s many intimate moments that places us with a character during a time of need.
What ensues is startling and wholly original, as the film unflinchingly studies the relationship between Mable and Nick and how their marriage is fraught with frailties but somehow is magically held together in large part due to their crazy, insane, and, at times, violent and poignant interactions they have with one another. They might not know how to buy each other flowers or scratch the other’s back, but my God do they try in other ways. It’s perceiving these other ways that the film finds its truest resonance.
We watch in awe and are shocked when Nick put together a huge welcome home party for Mable upon her being released from the hospital after six months. He invites everyone. Friends from work. Distant family relatives and doctors. Just prior to her arriving, Nick’s mother (Katherine Cassavetes) has to tell him he’s doing this the wrong way. He reflects and understands that his mother is right. But it’s moments like these where Nick is desperately attempting to do the right thing or Mable overwhelmingly trying to appease everyone at the dinner table that the film ascends to another level. We have a husband and wife who have huge hearts and feelings but are inadequate at expressing them properly.
Cassavetes (1929-1989) was the pioneer for American independent cinema. His directorial career started off in 1959 with Shadows (the same year as the French New Wave). He never looked back. He funded the majority of his films (thanks to taking some acting roles in bigger Hollywood pictures) and found comfort in working with actors and actresses who were his friends. No coincidence that his films resemble life so effortlessly. As evidenced in A Woman Under the Influence especially, almost all of his films never hesitate. They know what they’re after and they get there, unencumbered by any narrative surprises or unreliant on cinematic contrivances. His films are a breath of fresh air that depict human relationships, the inevitable turmoil within them and the insuppressible love constantly present in them. At the end of the day, like Nick and Mable, we are with the ones we love washing dishes, putting them back, and going through life.