Over the past couple weeks, we’ve dissected the first two films in the new Blu-Ray reissue of Criterion’s John Cassavetes: Five Films. I noted in my review of Faces (1968) that most viewers will need a couple days to recoup between Cassavetes’s films due to their raw depiction of love (an interracial romance in Shadows, a crumbling marriage in Faces) and emotionally grueling running times (almost all the films in this set – aside from Shadows – are over two hours long). Needless to say, I felt an emotional flinch when going into one of Cassavetes’s most beloved works, A Woman Under the Influence (1974), a portrait of a household that is stuck in the riptide of mental instability. There were moments where I was completely engrossed by the performances and characterization, unable to take my eyes from the screen. There were also long stretches where I was forced to sit and watch the Longhetti family unravel in a perpetual cycle of actions and reactions that forced me to turn away.
Cassavetes is not a filmmaker concerned with classical narrative construction. His films do not have plot propelled along at a nice clip by characters with thin psychological motives. His characters are more complex and flawed than that, which derails the forward momentum we expect from the bulk of Hollywood films. Instead, his films are structured around prolonged moments: dinners, encounters in bars, conversations in bed. A Woman Under the Influence, out of all the Cassavetes films reviewed thus far, best illustrates this preoccupation and uses it to continuously shift the viewer’s empathy.
In the opening of the film, we’re introduced to Mabel (Gena Rowlands), an eccentric Los Angeles housewife who sends her children off to her mother’s for the evening so she can spend a quiet night alone with her husband Nick (Peter Falk). Nick, a construction worker, is sent on an emergency assignment and needs to cancel their date. Mabel smokes and drinks alone before finally heading down Hollywood Boulevard to find a man to take her home. In those opening moments, we register Mabel’s excitement and disappointment, but we also find ourselves sitting in judgment. Isn’t it a bit rash to drunkenly seek out a lover because of a cancelled date? We also begin to realize that Mabel may be a bit more than eccentric.
The next morning, Nick returns home from work. He brings his co-workers home for an early-morning dinner of spaghetti. The scene initially cemented my contempt for Nick. He introduces his wife to his friends, but neglects to introduce them back to her. She’s asked to cook for them and Nick makes little attempt to integrate her into the conversation. When she begins a dialogue with the men around the table that climaxes with some joking around, Nick gets upset and chastises Mabel. In this sequence, Nick comes across as a buffoon of a man whose impatience and dominance over the household would drive anyone to the brink of sanity. He reaches his lowest when he slaps Mabel around; he seems to be incapable of soliciting our empathy.
Then, Mabel loses it and suffers a nervous breakdown. Cassavetes is unflinching in his depiction; we watch Mabel slowly shift from eccentric sanity to irrational thought in a sequence that seems to have no end. It is also in this sequence that we begin to view Nick in a more complicated light. By the time he is tasked with sending her away to a mental health clinic, we realize he loves her more than anything; the problem is that he is incapable of expressing it (just as he finds himself searching for words when talking about children with his friends at the dinner table).
With Mabel away and Nick installed as the primary caretaker for the children, we realize he also has his share of mental eccentricities. In one scene, he pulls his children from school, takes them to the beach, and demands that they have fun (this is in the midst of a tragedy that Nick caused at work). Later, when Mabel is released from the mental institution, he throws her an awkward “Welcome Home!” party. Cassavetes continues this rhyming scheme in the final sequence: another uncomfortable dinner in which Mabel pleads to her father to stand up for her. Nick has once again become a despicable brut.
Like Faces, Cassavetes’s chief gift as a director is his ability to push his actors into a pure state of performance. We lose the personas of Rowlands and Falk in A Woman Under the Influence. The duration, the meandering dialogues, the scenes that seem to constantly shift our identification, and the documentary aesthetic strip them down and make them real.
Unlike Faces, the duration works better here because Cassavettes’s structure – while shaggy – seems to have a more systematic thought process behind it (especially with the rhyming/doubling structure), implicitly prompting us to make comparisons and contrasts between how the Longhetti household changes when the main parental figure is swapped out. In this sense, it’s more rewarding than Faces but it’s also much more difficult to stomach due to the stakes. In Faces, the relationship between the husband and wife is already beyond repair. In A Woman Under the Influence, the marriage is stuck in a cycle of destructive renewal that is defined by mental instability. While it may leave its characters in a more optimistic scene than Faces, Mabel and Nick’s cleaning of the house is not a metaphor for their marriage. Cassavetes isn’t that easy on his characters.
The Criterion Blu-Ray features a beautiful HD video transfer and a slightly inconsistent mono mix (I had to adjust my volume more often than usual, but this may have been a by-product of Cassavetes’s casual shooting style). I wasn’t completely won over by what I heard on the commentary track featuring Mike Ferris (camera operator) and Bo Harwood (sound recorder, composer). After listening to about an hour of it, I had my fill and preferred an hour long audio interview with the director and a recent, twenty minute, conversation with Rowlands and Falk recorded in 2004.