A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Directed by John Cassavetes. USA. 1974.


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Nick Longhetti is abrupt, emotional, quick to anger, but also has moments of tenderness. His wife Mabel is socially inept and emotionally insecure. Her behavior is strange and inappropriate, but is she crazy, a danger to her children? John Cassavetes 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence tries to supply an answer but the answer is unclear and the film can be viewed from different viewpoints. What is clear, however, is that Peter Falk and Gina Rowlands who play the troubled couple love each other deeply but cannot express their love in socially acceptable ways. They are no movie family with manufactured emotions, however. but two flesh and blood human beings who feel and suffer and love right before your eyes. After spending two and one half emotionally exhausting hours with them, you will feel everything that they feel and know that they have become part of your own family. 

Set in the suburbs of Los Angeles, neither husband nor wife are people of means and Nick is a blue-collar construction worker for the city. They have three children, Maria (Christina Grisanti), Tony (Matthew Cassel), and Angelo (Matthew Laborteaux) who are not cute movie kids but real people who happen to be small. They love their parents but are bewildered by how they act. Mabel expends much of her energy trying to be the perfect wife and mother but has no strong sense of self. As Cassavetes says, "Her problem was that she was doing everything to please someone other than herself. When Nick wanted her to go to bed with him, she'd go to bed. When he wanted her to be embarrassed, she'd be embarrassed. If he wanter her to apologize, she'd apologize. Mabel's not behaving herself, but you can't behave yourself when you've been pushed so far from your own way of being". Nick, on the other hand, tries to avert being exposed as a fool, but in the effort to avoid embarrassment, makes an even bigger fool of himself. 

When Nick calls one evening and tells her he has to work on a burst water main, she loses control, goes to a bar, and brings a man home to spend the night with but the next morning resumes her household duties as if nothing had happened. When Nick brings a bunch of fellow workers home for Spaghetti breakfast the next morning, Mabel dutifully acts the part of hostess but doesn't know when to back off after she invites an obvious uncomfortable man to dance with her. At that point Nick explodes and everyone sits in awkward silence. After that incident, Mabel's behavior becomes a growing problem and a concern of Nick's mother Margaret (Katherine Cassavetes). When Mabel inappropriately attempts to engage a neighbor to play with her and the children, Nick walks in, draws the wrong conclusions, and has Mabel committed to a psychiatric hospital for six months. 

When she returns home from the hospital, Nick and Mabel try to pick up the pieces of their relationship but Nick miscalculates her vulnerability and invites forty house guests to welcome her home and a tug of war with the children leaves nerves even more frayed than before. Nick and Mabel have problems and many are deep seated but the film is not despairing, nor is it a clinical study of the so-called mentally ill. Whatever their problems are, they are not that different from those of many married couples, only much more pronounced. They may not be ours but they are human problems nonetheless and we relate to the Longhetti's as human beings that we care about. In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes supplies us with a mirror to see ourselves and many may not like the view, yet the film touches us in ways that cannot be expressed with words. It reaches us viscerally on a gut level and remains forever a part of our lives. 

GRADE: A 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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