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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
John Cassavetes could not find a distributor for the film after completion, and was at one point literally carrying the reels under his arm, from one theater to another, in hopes of getting one to play his movie. Finally, Martin Scorsese, who had recently become critically acclaimed following his film Mean Streets (1973) happened to be a huge fan of Cassavetes' work and threatened to pull his film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) from a major New York film festival unless they accepted this film. See more »
When Mabel returns from the Hospital, the family is in the living room watching Nicky and Mabel's father argue about dinner. Mabel sits on the chair with her father and kisses him. The camera tilts down and tape is visible on the floor. This is marking tape used to denote where to reposition the chair for retakes as the chair was moved earlier in the scene by Dr. Zepp. See more »
Textbook gender related observation: When Jack Nicholson's character acts eccentric in One Flew Over the Cuuko's Nest, nobody will believe he's crazy. When Gena Rowland's character is eccentric in this film, everyone assumes she is.
But that is only one of many realisations one makes observing A Woman Under the Influence. It is an intricate film, as was John Cassavetes a filmmaker who always filled his films with as many things as possible. Whatever his films were about, it always had to do with the truth of human nature and human life in modern society. In one example of great main leads in his films, Cassavetes' real-wife Rowlands is playing Mabel, the woman of the title, the house-wife of a Peter Falk's construction foreman Nick. Everybody knows that Mabel is more or less "crazy". Why does everybody "know" this? She is eccentric, has got funny mannerisms, at time she talks and acts randomly about things that make no sense. She is a human being with a desire to achieve, but nobody has ever given her attention or respect as an individual. I think Mabel's crisis is first and foremost that of an identity crisis. She is empty inside, Nick says. That's because nobody has bothered to look inside. Upon the demanding adult roles society demands on her, in particular the task of motherhood, the result is breakdown. She is a house-wife who spends her days wandering around the house trance-like, she cooks and cleans and sews and all the time she acts as if that somehow would be an absurdity. She tries to be nice to the guests but it all results in awkward silence and embarrassment. What should she be doing, then? Who is she?
I think any viewer judging that she is in fact "insane" is an enemy to the film's intent and soul. Rowlands portrait of this woman is a hauntingly perfect portrayal of mental illness, certainly, but her state is that of extreme confusion rather than being someone who's simply "lost it". This is a woman aimlessly struggling to get out of a sea of under-nourished self-esteem and identity loss. We don't know how or when it started, but the more into the film we get the more we understand. Her mind is like a tapestry that Cassavetes gradually unfolds. In the first scene she is running around trying to place her children in the car for a trip with their grandmother's. Cassavetes knows that the clever viewer will relate the title's "influence" to that of gender related, domestic pressure. But that's only the beginning, I think, of what this woman is suffering from. It's not until the end we realise that maybe her family wasn't all that supportive of her, her father seems genuinely uninterested in whatever any diagnosis could be and her mother is just Mabel's fourth child. And if Mabel is crazy, Falk's character of Nick is certainly just as crazy. We don't realise that until after a while either. But he acts just as random upon situations he's not familiar with, and he also has bursts of eccentric (mis)behaviour. You'll have to look more closely to discover this perhaps, he is after all a friendly looking male patriarch and your brain is less inclined to view him as crazy.
Mabel, who is still dependent on him and her domestic safety (that's the crux, I think, of her entire problem), says "I'll be anything you want" and Nick tells her to be herself. But she hasn't got a personality of her own, her emotions conflict her roles and duties but neither become clear to her. What's worse, nobody is interested in her, or has the slightest notion she might have anything worthwhile. "Be yourself", Nick says, but in fact he's not interested in who she is, and he is (without giving too much thought to it) putting demands on her, expecting her to fulfill her duties which is one of the very reasons she's all messed up. He's just not that clever. It's not just that he is a blue collar guy, he seems totally unable to communicate personally with his wife and, certainly, with his children. Basically, he hasn't got much of a personality either, but being a man that reasoning is considered as abstract and not a psychological case. In any case, Nick and Mabel surely love each other, but none of them have the capacity to cope with one another, or even comprehend their surroundings. Towards the end of the film, all Nick can tell Mabel is "Stop what you're doing". There's a childish desperation in him that is channeled through his gender but just as "crazy" as Mabel's lack of self-confidence and self-realising even.
I said that you observe this film, and I mean it. It is more than realistic, it is profoundly real. Everyone have met couples like Mabel and Nick, couples who's lack of harmony and functionality is so great, it can't stay behind the social curtain. I'm saying that as point of reference. We've all left the dinner table at some point. "Maybe it's time we'd go home". As much as any documentary, Cassavetes films moved in real time, here and now, portraying life as it is. He knew that realism doesn't mean tragedy or brutality. Life is rarely dramatic and offers no cathartic finales. Life just is what we are living, it's not easy to comprehend and it doesn't offer security. For the future, we feel great hope but we also feel great fear. This film has got horrible moments, but it's horrible moments of truth. It's also got humorous moments of truth. These judgments are in a sense arbitrary. It's real life. It's the rarely seen beauty of truth that Cassavetes conjured up in his films. Rowlands is there to capture the essence of it, the notion that we are all human beings who need and deserve to be loved, no matter if we have table manners or not.
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