Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Eleven

#11 — A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)
It’s monstrously difficulty to detail the strengths of the cinematic signature pieces of John Cassavetes. The revolutionary filmmaker’s defining strengths are well-established: a bruising verisimilitude, a compulsion to push his characters (and, by extension, his actors) to emotional extremes and a commitment to groping for human truth in a way that’s both frantic and focused, like a blind man searching out the exit door handle in a room filling up with deadly gas. To say something new is damn near impossible. The films have been picked over too much, as individual works and as an oeuvre quite unlike any other. Perhaps the best way, then, is to simply go from the gut. After all, that’s what Cassavetes usually did.

A Woman Under the Influence is powerful, scintillating, brutal, compelling, mesmerizing, exhausting. It revels in the harrowing breadth of the human psyche, fearlessly depicting the way a person’s mind can double back on itself, jumbling fiction with reality until not a single thing really makes sense. Gena Rowlands, wife and frequent collaborator of Cassavetes, plays Mabel, a Los Angeles housewife who is becoming increasingly erratic, essentially getting lost in the daily solitude that comes when her husband is off at work and her kids have been shipped off to school. Rowlands gives Mabel’s distress an intense physicality, whether stalking through her house, flailing her arms as if to shake off corrosive energy, or even sitting still, sipping on liquor and smoking cigarettes, trying to will herself into a mental placidity.

It is not a detachment from society that defines Mabel’s ailment, but instead a desperate desire to fit in. Where her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), brings his coworkers home for a meal after a long shift, Mabel beams at the opportunity to play the good wife, the upstanding hostess. She tries on social graces like a raggedy housecoat, pressing herself into the affections on the assembled guests until the neediness of her overtures pushed over into discomfort and anxiety. Nick loves her desperately, but he sees the way she’s starting to fray, and the wilting emotional fortitude that plays on Falk’s face is heartbreaking. In the harsh shadow of Cassavetes’ sensibility, the discordance of Mabel’s mental state tears shreds from everyone around her.

Cassavetes always had a fascination with the total impact of people in pain, the way the interconnected needs of a group can set a whole community into turmoil. He also had a steadfast refusal to see things in stark, simple, easily divided terms. The world is not made up of the damaged and the steady, but of a vast army of walking wounded, most of them sadly unaware of the woes they carry. Mabel may be recognizably adrift, but her botched attempt at giving the children a day of fun (in a manner so accidentally reckless that it could be used a training video for social services offices) is ultimately no worse than Nick’s later effort when Mabel has been institutionalized, dragging the kids out to the beach and barking at them in the least relaxing family trip imaginable. Mabel might have symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis, but Cassavetes makes it clear that the supposedly healthy people have their own shortfalls that aren’t all that different.

The entire film is captured in a raw manner that makes every moment of spiritual destitution all the more probing. Cassavetes favors long takes, loose improvisational dialogue and a unadorned style that finds the aching beauty in the mundane. He’s not trying to twist the film into melodramatic histrionics or shove it down into the dirt and grit. He’s simply trying to capture moments, sure that something honest will emerge. That observation isn’t exactly new either, but, to properly celebrate A Woman Under the Influence, it’s also necessary.