I’ve been through Italian neorealism, I’ve been through docu-drama, and I’ve been through Dogme95, if only barely. All have much in common; completely naturalistic lighting, minimal budget and production value, use of non-professional actors, and (in some cases) extensive handheld camera shots. They also usually have one other thing in common; they usually tend to be foreign films. American filmmakers have a style to them, and while that style is as varied as the melting pot of American culture, there is still usually a sense of flair or presentation to them; rarely do American filmmakers pre-1980 or so go for bare-bones realism. Well, now I know; they left it all to John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is one of the handful of essential Cassavetes films, if the Criterion Collection’s lumping of five of his films in a single boxset release is any indication. It is his longest film on the list, and as far as I know his longest film at all, and it feels it. But don’t get the impression that this is a slog to get through. It might’ve been at first, but when the plot picks up, you’ll see that every ounce of running time is utilized to its fullest.
The film is a three-act story. Mabel is a housewife living in the Los Angeles area with her construction worker husband Nick, and their three children. While Nick has many friends and is generally seen as a stable person, Mabel seems to be at the very edge of flying off her rocker, and it is after a particularly stressful episode that Nick decides to have his wife committed to try and help her mental state. From there, the second act begins, where Nick is now the one in charge of taking care of the family, a job he seems to be ill-suited for, and his emotional state is stressed further, until Mabel is eventually brought home to begin the final act. The film largely works the way it does because of the extravagant and overbearing performance by Gena Rowlands. Her Mabel is a nervous wreck pretty much all of the time, and neurotic to the point of unbearability; not in the likable, Woody Allen way, but in the “My god, this woman needs to take a Valium or two” way. She seems like a random ball of electricity, crackling and snapping in every which way except the sensible way, the “let’s just keep our head down and maybe the world won’t take notice of us” way. She will literally do the least expectable thing in response to whatever sensory feedback or impetus gets into her head. And it’s not just this; it’s her effect on the people around her that lands her into the trouble she gets into. Damn near every scene in the first half of the film, even a casual dinner with a bunch of Nick’s work friends, has a palpable tension that seems ever-rising, until the climax of the first act lets it all out into the open, and Mabel appears to completely cave in on herself, losing her mind and her sanity. It’s the second act where her counterpart Peter Falk gets his chance to carry the film, which he does so easily; as commanding a presence as Mabel is, Nick is able to match her when the need arises.
It’s the third star of the film that really makes this an effective picture, and that is Cassavetes himself. His camerawork, script, and the choices he makes in each scene seem spontaneous and improvised, but how he puts the film together belies the fine control he has over the whole proceedings. This is one film I would love to read the shooting script for, just to see what made it onto the screen and what was more of the actors’ decisions and that of the crew. I have no doubt that the Dogme crew took much inspiration from this film, and even despite its length, I found a lot to appreciate about it as well. It’s the style of the film that makes me a little apprehensive that Cassavetes’ other films may not be as raw and powerful as this one, largely why this one worked for me where it otherwise wouldn’t have, but after the modest surprise that this one was, I think I’ll be able to start some of his other works without as much hesitation.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10