Mabel, a wife and mother, is loved by her husband Nick but her madness proves to be a problem in the marriage. The film transpires to a positive role of madness in the family, challenging conventional representations of madness in cinema.
An almost accidental romance is kindled between a German woman in her mid-sixties and a Moroccan migrant worker around twenty-five years younger. They abruptly decide to marry, appalling everyone around them.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
El Hedi ben Salem,
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Peter Falk is a blue collar man trying to deal with his wife's mental instability. He fights to keep a semblance of normality in the face of her bizarre behavior, but when her actions affect their children, he has her committed. Written by
BA Jacobson <email@example.com>
This is a film about need, about affection, about a desperate need of affection that consumes the heart of Mabel Longhetti, the "woman under the influence" ... Some might say she's a troubled woman suffering from a personality disorder, others would say she's just psychotic ... they couldn't be wronger : she couldn't have a personality disorder, since she doesn't have any personality at all. Her character is totally diluted into that desperate need to please, to make people comfortable. The painful paradox is that this desire creates even more awkward and uncomfortable situations. But Mabel isn't aware of that, she can't understand that because she has buried any desire to be someone under the profound will to make people she loves, happy. She's sweet and tender, but this sweetness is wrong because it's inspired by a double fear of rejection and confrontation.
Mabel crystallizes all these feelings and translates them in a behavior made of unpredictable excitability, a forced cheerfulness, a childish behavior she almost uses as a shield not to be hurt. She's afraid, and so are we, when we watch this poor woman trying to gain anyone's sympathy, just to please Nick, her husband. Mabel is played by the beautiful Gena Rowlands in what I consider the greatest cinematic female performance ever. Peter Falk is underrated as Nick, the husband who tries to deal with Mabel's condition, with such severity sometimes, that even himself can't control his own reactions.
This is the set-up of the film, it's a drama, that couldn't have been directed by anyone but the great John Cassavettes. It's not a thriller, not an action film, yet it provided some of the most heart-pounding moments I've ever experienced. Never had a lunch and a dinner scene been so uneasy to watch : as it's been mentioned before, Mabel doesn't want to hurt people's feeling yet she unconsciously does. Mabel is like a little flame that might, at any time, light a bag of powder. Mabel creates real tickling-bomb situations, where the explosion is a burst of emotions, so human watching the film feels indecent. That's Cassavetes genius, this is no voyeuristic movie because we don't enjoy watching such devastation in a family that has everything to be happy. It's no voyeurism, it's realism, its cinema-verity as its purest form. Every laugh makes us smile, every shout makes us vibrate. Every silence makes us feel uncomfortable. We watch, we wait, and we never have a feeling that nothing is happening. Every look on Gena's eyes, every way she deforms her face, every noise or weird hand gesture she makes is the expression of a poor little a soul trying to communicate a part of what remains in the bottom, what remains of Mabel's personality.
Confronted to Mabel's emotional clumsiness, Nick looks totally helpless, yet he's not exempt from reproaches. He's not crazy but his own temper probably aggravated Mabel's condition. He warns his colleague, "Mabel is not crazy", but he insists so much, you wonder why would someone say that about a 'normal' woman. The answer is that he thinks she's crazy, but loves her so much he doesn't want people to think she is. Nick loves so much his wife he puts himself in situations making him act like a bag of contradictions. Nick himself looks sometimes desperate as he doesn't know what he's doing, lost between his responsibilities as a father, a son, a husband who loves his wife, and a man devoured by a frustrated violence. Seeing him trying to act like a father makes you put Mabel's insanity into perspective. If Mabel acts under Nick's influence, Nick's life and behavior are equally influenced by Mabel's problem, the effects on the couple, on the family and the relationships with the friends are disturbingly heart-breaking.
Disturbing, Cassavetes' masterpiece is because it reflects our own fears with a gripping realism, it's a journey into the deepest bottom of the human soul, made of anger, fear, sadness, happiness, reason, craziness, men, women, children, human relationships. It's hard to watch, it's uncomfortable, we can't help but feel sorry for the poor Mabel, for these poor kids, and even for Nick. They're not pathetic because they're not quite passive. In fact, the movie is full of noise, of loud shouts, of movements, this is no swimming in an ocean of tears, this is not your typical tear-jerker drama, it's almost like an emotional thriller. In fact, this doesn't need any categorization, this film makes other films look like films. "A Woman under the Influence"'s direction turns it into a chaotic journey into human relationships, and a very exhausting experience in reality.
Gena Rowlands gave the best performance I've ever seen, and the fact she won or not an Oscar doesn't even matter ... these considerations normalize the movie when it's more than something you would nominate for an award. Cassavettes's masterpiece is a tunnel ride into the depths of the human soul with its dark sides, and a probable light of hope at the end.
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