It is a shame that for a number of years I have stayed away from the work of John Cassavetes. I had encountered his name here and there, but refrained from watching any of his movies. My knowledge of him was limited to his role as a so-so actor in Rosemary's Baby (1968). I did not know that he mainly acted in films to gather money for his own cinematic projects.
In my euro-centric view, I had been suspicious of American films because I equated them for the most part with Hollywood. There are, of course, a number of good filmmakers, but I had often felt that they liked the gravitas of the great filmmakers out there. I like Coppola, Spielberg and Woody Allen, but I felt that they came up short in comparison to those whom I deemed masters of cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Kurosawa and those illustrious French masters of the New Wave.
This would explain why I was literally shell-shocked about how good Cassavetes' Woman under the Influence really is, my introduction to the work of a cinematic master! This independent anti-Hollywood film was made with financial difficulty in 1974 and is about a woman who is struggling with her daily life, including her roles as a mother and a wife, which seem in direct conflict with her own self-identity. It is quite an existential film that looks at madness in such a poignant and piercing way that it breaks your heart.
Now the 70s is really the golden age of American cinema in my view. Like most of the classic films of those times, such as Dog Day Afternoon, One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Deer Hunter, these movies strive for authenticity. They look and feel like documentaries and model themselves, consciously or not, after the cinema vérité style.
In other words, there is more focus on ordinary life and situations and with little expository music. The beautifully timed and framed shots of Cassavetes' Woman under the Influence predate the Dogme 95 style of the handheld camera and have a spontaneous feeling to them. The acting also strives to be as natural as possible and is rarely melodramatic, stylized or over the top. As a result, we are given slices of life set in a clearly American context.
And in this American context, we meet a constructor by the name of Nick Longhetti - played against type by “Columbo” Peter Falk - who has to work overtime due to an unexpected burst pipe. He was supposed to be with his wife Mabel as she had charged their children to her mother's care for the night. It was supposed to be their romantic evening together, which considering they have three young children must have come about once in a blue moon.
Nick feels bad about canceling and would rather avoid this sticky situation. Mabel sees this incident as a blunt rejection and ends up getting drunk at a random bar. She then hooks up with a stranger who then takes her home and has sex with her. Cassavetes throws us into the story the same way Michael Cimino in The Deer Hunter (1978) suddenly throws his characters into the madness of war; it takes a bit of time to sort things out and find out how one feels about each of these characters.
In fact, my first impression was that I liked the hard-working husband and was not so thrilled about his wife played brilliantly by Cassavetes' real wife Gena Rowlands. But slowly, our feelings and opinions shift as we get a glimpse of their daily life and, more importantly, their struggles.
This conflict first becomes visible and tangible when after the night shift Nick brings home his co-workers for some early-morning spaghetti. The spaghetti scene seems to drag quite a bit where Mabel asks everyone at the table for their names and then a couple of the construction workers start to sing operatic tunes in Italian. Yet when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly shouts at Mabel to knock it off, the mood shifts and we are left in a similar state of shock as the guests. Our sympathies begin to shift also.
Gradually, the madness of the main character comes into focus. She is struggling hard to find and define her own identity under the circumstances. She is trying hard to be a mother and trying to please her husband by being good and by fulfilling his expectations, but as she overdoes and overplays her roles, all of it turns out to be rather pathetic.
It certainly does not help that her husband is not averse to using violence; he hits her a number of times bullying her into the role he wants her to play for him. Yet despite their problems they seem happy when they are alone together and there are a few glimpses of happiness and love between them. It is when others are involved be it Nick's co-workers or their family members when things get out of hand and beyond control.
The documentary style fits the movie's message quite well. This is not an overdone film like A Beautiful Mind (2001); the madness presented here is more mysterious but also more accessible and strangely personal. We never really know what mental illness she is suffering from except that she is often described as nervous and anxious, and it seems that her husband has his own mental issues as his parenting style is also questionable (who in his right mind shares a six-pack of beer with his under-age children?).
The movie reminded me of Bergman's (movie not the series) Scenes of a Marriage (1973) except that I found Cassavetes' film more moving and more realistic. Woman under the influence captures a number of themes in an effortless way. At the center stage is the couple. We sense that they do love each other, but they find it hard to accept each other and to show and express their love in an appropriate way, whatever that may be. Perhaps both have become victims of how others want and expect them to be.
No scene shows this more than the final one. She is about to return from the mental hospital after a six-month-absence. To welcome her, the awkward husband invites all his friends and colleagues over to throw a party because he thinks that is what she would have wanted.
This multitude of people in a small house does not impress his family members, and his mother played by Cassavetes' very own mother criticizes her son Nick in no unequivocal terms. What was he thinking to invite over all these people? This was supposed to be merely an intimate family event. What were all those strangers doing in the house at such a crucial moment? This would only stress out his wife etc.
He feels embarrassed and paces wildly in the rain asking his mother to send his friends away. And so she does. But we can see that he meant good and wants to surprise his wife. However, it might also be that he wants to show off his “new” wife and show them that she is fine and not crazy (anymore). That he is very sensitive and touchy about the home front and in particular her strange behavior and madness is a running theme throughout the movie.
When Mabel walks in, she is even less herself. She is too calm and seems to almost sleepwalk herself through the scene. Then she asks to see her kids and her husband refuses. He does not want to have a show in front of family members because she would start crying, and they would cry and nobody will have a good time. Whether this is his selfishness speaking or simply a desire to spare her some suffering is not immediately clear.
As her behavior remains restrained, her husband takes her to the side and confronts her. He wants her to be herself again; he wants those nervous and strange mannerisms and tics to return. According to him, this is how she is and he tells her this is her house, that she should not be intimidated by those guests, their family members. Again we could say that he wants her to conform to the impressions he has of her in his own mind. But let's not complicate things.
In a crucial moment, she asks her Dad to please stand up for her. He takes her literally and does so. Then she asks him to sit. He does that too in a bewildered state. Her mother, however, sees through her silent plea for help; their daughter Mabel must have been asking for some kind of protection from her husband. But what can they do? What should they do? All these wild emotions are insinuated via a close-up of the father's face.
This movie has great individual scenes and it is also remarkable that throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time, it rarely drags (minus the spaghetti scene but that had its purpose). The acting is outstanding and we are left in a state of shock. It is one of the best portrayals of madness I have seen.
In fact, it is not only about the suffering and helplessness of being mentally ill, but also about its stigma. At the same time, it shows us that the husband may be mad also, perhaps even more so if we look at the harm his violent behavior causes; notwithstanding, it is the woman that is locked away and treated in a mental hospital.
Finally, the movie shows us that there is often no cure for mental illness. Yet at the same time, this ailing couple still love and need each other in their own way and must fight hard for their sanity and their happiness. A great work by Cassavetes that has made me his fan already; now I am quite thrilled about exploring his other films. And my apologies for underestimating him without giving him a fair trial!