“Be yourself,” so says the husband to the wife.
Said husband is Nick (Peter Falk), and he is losing his patience with his nerve-ridden wife Mabel (played by Gena Rowlands in a career-defining role). And whether Nick is aware of it or not, what started as social awkwardness laced with some inappropriate comments for Mabel can, and will, escalate into a full-blown psychotic bout when the right spousal pressure is applied. At this point in the film, we may realize this. Nick, however, in the role of a stubborn blue-collar patriarchal trope, never truly learns.
A Woman Under the Influence, upon its 1974 release, was immensely (and disgustingly) ahead of its time. With John Cassavetes’ documentary-esque forms of naturalistic and borderline-improvisational dialog and deliverance, blended with the confronting of social taboos that are even today difficult to stomach, Cassavetes performs the goal of many filmmakers in capturing both objective reality and the one they mapped out for cinematic drama.
Beginning and ending with opera tracks, A Woman Under the Influence starts with Nick being unable to escape his job, which visibly distresses Mabel beyond the extent of a simply annoyed and neglected housewife. The studies of facial expressions are Bergmanesque and we can most definitely tell that there is something abnormal about the way Mabel sees the world. And we can also tell that, through no real fault of her own, there can be danger in denying her plans.
And sure enough, Mabel goes out and finds a man at a bar who will indulge her. We know the man’s true motives, but maybe she does too, she just wants to feel heard for a few hours. Mental illness aside, everyone can relate to feeling ignored and invisible, and while what Mabel says does not make particular sense, she feels validated by the stranger’s smiling and nodding.
But while it’s certainly easier to point out the faults in Mabel’s behavior, we will learn that Nick is himself an imperfect partner, although this notion is more arguable in the standards of the 1970s. His first instinct upon coming home? Bringing his entire crew inside and having Mabel cook for them.
Cassavetes appreciates many of the same things as other filmmakers regarding characters– thorough pasts, individual personality quirks, various ways of molding with or clashing against other characters. But its the way Cassavetes presents the qualities that sets him apart. They drag out the ideas in long monologue-style conversations; most of the text within that dialog is likely meaningless, but the main point is gotten across, much like the way we actually talk to each other in everyday scenarios.
A Woman Under the Influence is the product of Gena Rowlands’ desire to play a part reflective of the obstacles modern women face. So Cassavetes wrote the script as a play, one so intense they decided to make a film instead, so the actors would only have to nail the intensity a single time. Unable to find proper financing, as these taboos were simply not Hollywood enough, Cassavetes would take a mortgage out on his house and even borrow money from those around him, including Peter Falk. Whether or not the final product of the film is worth seeing, that speaks highly to the drive of both prospective and established directors.
While I do think many seeing this film for the first time today will likely find the same pleasure that I did, I can be sympathetic toward those who find its absurdity and its antics to be nothing beyond randomness or stupidity. I do feel that some will find nothing worth looking into when they see Mabel’s bizarre way of treating houseguests, friends, and her and Nick’s children. But given things like the budget, the time period, and Cassavetes’ traditional style of presentation, I believe most will find a valuable experience within what may be one of the most well-known independent films of the 1970s.
This reviewer has always had a particular lenience toward psychological films. As much as I love a good thriller, I am more partial to psychological dramas, such as works by Bergman and P.T. Anderson, which give us nuanced and quiet moments, where we are alone with the protagonist, their actions, and of course their mental state. That said, I can confirm that Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence was not only setting a precedent for psychological films, but it was also setting the highest-possible bar for them. This film deserves the status of a classic.