A Woman Under the Influence
Directed by John Cassavetes
Written by John Cassavetes
“Woman is a symptom of Man” — Jacques Lacan
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) tells the story of a marriage in crisis. Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is suffering from an unnamed psychological condition that is threatening to tear her family apart. Her husband, Nick (Peter Faulk), desperately tries to keep everything together but he is being stretched beyond his own sanity. The children are passive in the beginning until the finale where they become extremely defensive of their mother, pushing their father away, becoming angelic, innocent buffers to Nick’s violent attempts to break her spell.
Cassavetes depicts marriage in A Woman Under the Influence as a battle where two competing definitions of reality constantly clash. Nick is stuck in an ideal memory of his wife when she was happy, most likely before they had children but Cassavetes isn’t clear on this point, and tries as hard as he can to bring that past into the present. This motivates Nick to lash out at anyone who mentions Mabel’s problems. He is unable to accept the seriousness of the present crisis because the happiness of the past is clouding his judgment. During friendly or family gatherings, Nick repeatedly begs everyone to “have a good time” or “to relax”, ignoring the strife his wife is experiencing, pleading her to “just be yourself, just be yourself, to hell with them, just be yourself”. These recollection-images nearly become fatal when Nick threatens to destroy everything, kill Mable and the children, for the sake of preserving the past.
Mabel is the centerpiece for everyone’s concern which only frustrates Nick even further. We never know what is is ailing her because Cassavetes limits our perspective to Nick’s consciousness. In the second half of the film, there is a suspicious absence of any scenes involving Mabel in treatment; we see her get committed and then the second half begins with her return. Cassavetes’ decision to ignore Mabel’s time in treatment results in the medical institution being depicted as totally useless. We learn from Mabel at her welcome home dinner about the rigidly structured lifestyle of the clinic and the eloctroshock treatment she had to endure. However, Cassavetes is not interested in commenting on the misguided attempts of patriarchy to understand and/or cure women but is more interested in showing us the crisis of communication between husband and wife. This crisis is registered by limiting our perspective to Nick’s faulty viewpoint. Nick doesn’t understand her problem so neither do we.
A film about marriage wouldn’t be complete without some in-law intervention. First we have Mabel’s father who, responding to Mabel’s pleas to help her, angrily tells Nick to leave his daughter alone, not fully understanding what his daughter wants but instinctively butting heads with his son-in-law. Then we have Nick’s mother, Margaret Longhetti (Katherine Cassavetes; John Cassavetes’ mother) is an integral part to this marital battle. She tries to convince Nick that something is wrong with Mabel, saying at one point “she’s crazy”, and then she brings the doctor to the Longhetti home so he can drug her. During this tumultuous scene, Margaret guards the staircase which Mabel interrupts as her mother-in-law guarding the children. Kent Jones wrote that the staircase is used as a focal point for domestic drama in A Woman Under the Influence which Cassavetes inherited from other filmmakers. Jones didn’t cite this example but recall the use of the staircase in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) where it becomes pivotal space for intervention during intense final struggle between Ed and his family. In A Woman Under the Influence, the staircase is the passageway between private (master bedrooms, bathrooms, children’s rooms) and the public (the living room, kitchen, foyer) and Margaret guards this passageway to block Mabel from retreating from this public space where doctors and institutions can help her.
Desperation is an integral emotion for A Woman Under the Influence. Everyone is this family drama is on the edge of control, Mabel’s inexplicable madness testing their limits. Desperation, extremely intense desperation, informs the tone of the film. Cassavetes was able to make us feel like we are in a constant state of climax, feeling like we are on the brink of some emotional tidal wave that has supple breaks in momentum but keeps intensifying, building further after Mabel attempts suicide, until Nick’s cathartic and violent slap breaks her spell. This is one of the most difficult scenes to watch and what makes it even more difficult is that Cassavetes withholds judgement. We are not forced into a well-defined moral position (even though we all bring this baggage when interpreting images) and Cassavetes depicts intense desperation with brute force. But brute force combined with tenderness. The children in the final scene are the saviors, protecting Mabel from Nick and herself, bringing everyone back to equilibrium. Cassavetes ends his marriage as battle narrative with the children picking up the pieces and repositioning Mabel on solid ground. The intensity is dispelled and we close with a beautiful moment of reconciliation and tranquility.