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A man goes into a big, strange house with his family and friends. He is armed with script and camera, and proceeds to create a milestone work of American cinema the key film of the 1970s. Above all else, `A Woman Under the Influence' is Anti-Hollywood, Anti-Establishment, Anti-Film. 1970's Hollywood may have defined itself with films like Godfather, Rocky, Annie Hall, and Deer Hunter but real, unpredictable, chaotic life was Cassavettes' territory. Fact is, Hollywood will never be ready for uninhibited Mabel and her much crazier husband Nick. Nutty as she is, Mabel/Cassavettes does nothing but tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Hollywood at best, tells persuasive lies. So , to get Hollywood ready for the Gospel of Cassavettes, the first thing that must happen is to banish the entire FX community; ship em to Alcatraz where they can make blockbuster cartoons for each other. Second the writers, directors and producers of said cartoons can go Vegas and try to `leave.' Those who remain will be entrusted with putting complex human beings who inhabit interesting lives and situations on the screen not `role models' who traipse through neatly-plotted, highly-improbable, beautifully photographed, committee-designed plots. Get my point? By the way, Gena Rowlands in "Influence" gives one of the finest performances of the sound era. See this film. See it now. Right now.
This is just another confirmation that Cassavetes, along with Dreyer
and Tarkovsky, is one of the very small number of geniuses in film,
whose every film is an extension of their genius -- some more mature
than others, but impossible to be "bad"; they are beyond terms like
"good" or "bad" -- they are the great art works of the century.
This film isn't about a "crazy" lady; it's not about putting a woman in an institution; and it's not about people talking about your crazy wife, though all of this happens in the film. Those are merely the events that take place over the course of the film; what it's really about is our misunderstanding, our experience as an audience. Just like the characters, we misunderstand Mable's childlike actions. What Cassavetes does is turn *us* into children -- it's as if we're experiencing things for the first time all over again, because it's a totally new experience, the same with watching a movie like "Andrei Rublev." That is an amazing thing to pass onto an audience. That's why I've never been bored watching a Cassavetes film -- something is always happening, things are always changing. The reality of what we're seeing is always undergoing augmentation, so we can never get fully situated.
It's never unrelenting gloom the way many so-called realistic films are (and this film goes far beyond mere "realism"); it's devastating watching it, watching Mable ask people if they want spaghetti one by one. But it's loving when Nick jokes about someone hugging her too long. It's communal during a scene at a dinnertable where Mable takes a pride in feeding "her boys." But each scene goes through a transformation as it happens. When Mable goes home with another man, he makes it clear that he's not to be used, but also that she shouldn't punish herself. It's not a screamy moment with a woman hiding in the bathroom; his avuncular twang is disarming.
There's a complete lack of self-consciousness in the film, and I mean that in terms of the characters (during Mable's key freak out scene, Rowlands does, I think, go too far) -- that's why the kids are s terrific in the film. When a boy says, "It's the best I can do, mom," it's an incredible moment because it's managed to be included without being offensive, mugging for the camera with cuteness. The film has such a strange relationship with kids -- they're like little people. And if that sounds odd, you'll understand when you see the film. The characters are constantly changing their minds; they're so aware of themselves that they're unaware -- Mable doesn't realize she's giving off a sexual aura (despite the fact that Rowlands can at times look like a blond beach babe). As with Julianne Moore in "Safe," we don't know what's wrong with her. She's a frenetic, guideless woman trying to do the guiding.
The way Cassavetes sets up the film, with ominous piano music that comes in when Falk is trying to speak, blinded by frustration; or setting the film inside this house with gigantic rooms, makes everything feel larger and emptier at the same time. It's like the scariness of the echo of something you'd rather not hear. Someone said that they wouldn't want a single frame of "2001" to be cut, lest the experience be changed. I think that applies more aptly to Cassavetes' films, because he never treads over the same thing twice, even when he's doing exactly the same thing he's just done. It's always something new. 9/10
Everyone views movies differently. I for one didn't think we were meant
to wonder who was crazier Mabel or her husband. Cassavetes makes a
strong, bold (and rarely voiced) point...it is the husband! Mabel loved
her children, loved to dance and sing and for that she was committed.
Her "unidentified mental illness" seems to intensify when her husband
mistreated her and was physically or verbally violent...in my opinion
going a bit crazy after someone slaps you is probably healthier and
saner than being polite, demure, and rational.
Mabel loves life, shows her love without apology, and is severely punished for it. Everyone else in the movie struggles to calm everyone down and avoid showing too much emotion. While this may be more socially acceptable it isn't sane or even healthy. Humans are emotional beings...I for one say Brava! Mabel.
I think the director tips his hand and proves his point when Mabel's character comes home from the institution. She hasn't seen her children, husband, and family for 6 months and people assault her, some she has never even met, before she even leaves the car. When she does get inside the safety of her own home the people who put her away and told to forget the past greet her with small talk and politeness! Then when she finally sees her children after being told to "wait a minute" she says to herself that she wants to remain calm and show "no emotions." It seems obvious that this is a perfectly acceptable time to be emotional but fresh from the institution she know being normal doesn't allow you to be emotional. Emotions are scary, messy, and inconvenient and I for one am thrilled that John Cassavetes didn't shy away from them.
This movie is a true original.
Freewheeling Cassavetes study of a marriage.
I think its a misreading to conclude that either one of the main characters is "crazy". Clearly Mabel has what you could call a borderline manic personality, but there's little evidence that she is unable to look after herself or her kids. The fact that she gets committed says less about her condition than about the position of women in the society Cassavetes is depicting. There is no sign that the visiting kids are in any danger - their father freaks out only because Mabel's behaviour falls outside his view of the conventional housewife. Nick on the other hand is not considered "crazy" despite physically attacking several people and getting his kids drunk, because men are allowed a lot more licence. In the end he is as trapped by the social pressures on him as Mabel is, except his frustration is turned outwards, hers inwards.
When the family are alone there is no problem, Nick's difficulties arise when Mabel is unable to fit the social role assigned to her - notably it is his mother who drives him to have Mabel committed. The "influence" Mabel is under turns out not to be alcohol as we first expect but patriarchy expressed via Nick, and society's limited and limiting expectations of women and of people in general. Put Mabel in a San Francisco commune 6 years earlier and she would look normal.
A word on the acting. Having known people with rather more serious cases of manic depression I can testify that Gena Rowlands' acting is actually rather understated. Falk meanwhile is a revelation to those who know him only from Colombo - his portrayal of the inarticulate, confused, occasionally violent but still very loving Nick is perfect - he just IS this guy.
Incidentally, you can see where Scorsese took many of the ideas for his most personal films from (notably "Mean Streets" which apparently he made after Cassavetes criticised "Boxcar Bertha") although he tidied them up and made them commercial. He even copied Cassevetes' lead here by putting his own mother in "Goodfellas".
While John Cassavetes is (rightly) revered for this film and other
under his belt, wife/key-star Gena Rowlands is the most fascinating and
emotionally gripping part to this work, Woman Under the Influence. Her
role as Mabel was perfect in a film that sometimes was not even as it
just tried for suburban truth. I was constantly curious about where her
character was headed, and even more so by how I did not feel any desire
at all to pass judgment on her. The moment I would have thought to
myself "well, she's too nuts to like" the film would be ruined for me.
And that is one of the more intelligent points to the film that
Cassavetes gets at.
This is, after all, a character-based film, with story merely in the background. And with his two main characters we get a look at what has been a stereotype for centuries- men are often brutal and stupid, women are crazy. In this filmmakers world, it's just not that black and white, however, but with the grays as pronounced as the highs and lows in a melodrama; it's just the way he sees things, and it's a unique way as well, where the soul and choice are the precedents over comfy dramatic circumstance.
I loved the use of the camera in many scenes, how it felt like they just shot and shot and went from one spot in the house to the next, uncertain but knowing how to observe and look. In fact, the whole film has the feel of a documentary, with the occasional dramatic touch such as a close-up. But what turns it into being something special is that Cassavetes understands that Falk, Rowlands and the others can take his script and make it their own, very personally so. And as it happens, Falk finds some of his most daring work here as Nick, a character who in his own way has become as nuts as Mabel with the everyday grind of living (which for both of them is filled with people, talk, pure humanity).
For those who don't like the easy solutions in dramas, or want to know the basics of the post-modern independent film movement, this is for you. It might seem to drag in spots, but it seems to be even more enveloping if one gives it the time to contemplate over those 'drag' moments.
This movie is a breakthrough - courageous and uncompromising view at
the family and at the marriage where both spouses love each other
deeply but they are both not well, they don't know how communicate when
somebody else present, even their own children. They could be happy on
the deserted island but not surrounded by friends and families. I was
fascinated by both, Peter Falk's and Gena Rowlands' performances. She
looked like a little girl, trapped in a woman's body - confused,
insecure, listening to what is inside of her. When she said to her
children, "I hope that you will never grow up", she meant it because
she never felt comfortable as a grown up. I could not take my yes off
Rowlands. Her performance is on par with the best study of nervous
breakdown I've seen, and this is Liv Ullmann in Bergman's "Face to
Peter Falks was also a revelation - I love him as Lt. Columbo in the TV series but he is a completely different character here; in a way, he is as mentally unbalanced as his wife is. The fact that he loves her but never hesitates to abuse her makes him terrifying - you never know how he will act in the next moment, and he does not know himself. Directing and writing are absolutely first class, and I am very exited to see more films by John Cassavetes, the Godfather of American Independent film-making and a father of American "New Wave" 9.5/10
A Woman Under the Influence is an emotionally packed film that is
centered around a capricious yet troubled housewife named Mabel. Mother
to three young children and wife to her loving but volatile husband
Nick, Mabel's mind is consumed with gaining acceptance and being
reassured by those who surround her. Her psychological ability to keep
up with normal everyday situations eventually reaches full capacity and
she struggles to maintain emotional and mental competency.
Director Cassavetes intentionally chooses not to grant clemency to the viewer. Imagine walking in late to an opera that's in it's third act that almost seems like what Cassavetes does to the audience introducing his depiction of a distressed family while they're in mid flight. Gena Rowlands' portrayal of the likable but frail Mabel is nothing short of incredible, and Peter Falk gives an equally remarkable performance as Mabel's husband Nick. This film is not for the weak-hearted nor for those seeking traditional entertainment. It's distinctive approach to such an emotional journey will undoubtedly impede many viewer's enjoyment - but for those who appreciate unique cinema and realism, it doesn't get much better than this.
This is probably one of the most intense films ever made, but to label it
"intense" is to almost do it injustice. After all, almost all of the
greatest works of art are intense, aren't they?
Although it is quite possible to find certain themes that run through this work, the movie almost seems to resist themes. Within its two-and-a-half hour running time, John Cassavetes touches on some of the most indescribable emotional states that human beings ever experience.
Technically, the film is equally excellent, with a nice minimalist score by Bill Harwood, softly beautiful cinematography, and fascinating editing. But all of this is merely in service of the brilliant performances by Rowlands, Falk, and the rest of the cast.
Eeesh, what a tough movie to sit through.
This two and a half hour movie left me sweaty, exhausted and hollowed out. In its own way it's an extremely well done film, but I don't know that it's an experience I want to repeat. Director John Cassavetes follows a few months in the life of a family whose mother and wife (Gena Rowlands) is suffering from mental illness, and the movie consists of one long scene after another of her cracking up, or trying not to crack up, and the various family members' reactions to her cracking up. Peter Falk plays the husband and father who thinks that mental illness is just some silly nonsense his wife should be able to stop if she just tried hard enough. Rowlands has the showier role, but Falk is the revelation here. His depiction of a husband who blusters and shouts to hide his overwhelming sense of helplessness and fear is superb.
Cassavetes's camera is relentless. We watch Rowlands suffer again and again in long takes and intimate closeups. There are times when you simply want to look away from the screen to help this poor woman preserve a shred of dignity. The highlight of the film (or low point, depending on your point of view) comes when Rowlands's character returns home from a stay in an institution, and her family works overtime to convince themselves that everything's fine when the audience can see clearly that everything is not.
Bruising is the best word I can think of to describe this film.
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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