Monday, March 10, 2014

A Panoply of Madness

When someone is said to be simply "under the influence" the assumption is that the person is drunk or feeling the effects of some other drug. Yet in John Cassavetes' 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, alcohol or any other external, mind altering substance seems the least of the many forces acting on the woman's psyche. The film's an effective portrait of two normal people, crazy in probably fairly normal ways, living in a normal, insane way.

We never get a concrete diagnosis of what makes Mabel (Gena Rowlands) act in ways that lead to her being notorious for "crazy" and "loony" among her family and her husband's co-workers. Which is fitting since similar personalities probably go undiagnosed 99% of the time. Nick (Peter Falk), her husband, never knows for sure what he's dealing with either.

For some reason, they don't have a bedroom. The kids sleep upstairs and they sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. A big sign on the bathroom says, "PRIVATE" so maybe it's just the lack of crucial, basic psychic boundaries that makes Mabel seem all nerves. She's manic most of the time--we see at the beginning of the film she does get the house to herself briefly, having sent the kids off to stay with her mother so she and Nick can have a quiet night alone. Nick works construction and expectedly is called downtown that night to fix a broken water main. So Mabel drinks a bit and listens to opera before deciding she needs company and wanders out to a bar.

A guy she flirts with watches in disbelief as she downs a whole glass of cheap gin with ice. At all times in the film she seems overflowing with excessive affection for everyone. She invites the guy back to her place. He rapes her--when he half carries her inside because she's falling down drunk, she seems shocked that he starts kissing and fondling her and tells him to stop. But judging from how offended he seems to be in the morning at the suggestion she's married he's probably convinced himself that he had a right to do what he did. Which is no less crazy than her persistently calling him "Nick" in the morning, though his craziness is sadly the more culturally acceptable.

The guy's gone when Nick comes home with the guys from work and, in my favourite scene, Mabel, seeming fragile and affectionate, makes spaghetti for everybody. She, her husband, and the workers have a wonderfully shot and performed, extremely naturalistic dialogue over the table.

I think if you want an accurate portrait of what it was like when a bunch of New York construction guys sat down to a meal made by the wife of their foreman in 1974, you couldn't do better than this film. I particularly liked Nick's hazy opinion about there being "something in the air" when you start seeing a lot of kids in the streets.

Peter Falk is incredible in this film, a badly shaven little bundle of anger threatening to boil over all the time. There's a scene that maybe goes a little too far when Nick takes the kids to the beach after Mabel is sent to a sanatorium--Nick angrily drags the kids about with the idea of having a good time. The idea of someone with anger issues not seeing applying this much force to having a relaxing outing is a valid insight but I think even someone like Nick would become aware of how counterproductive his actions are at some point.

There are some other false notes in the film--a scene where Mabel tries to get strangers to tell her what time it is when she's waiting on the corner for the school bus seems obviously intended to show Mabel's craziness but one comes away wondering more why none of these people can't simply glance at a watch and give Mabel the time. Another problem is that in some party scenes later, when Mabel comes back from the sanatorium and seems no different from when she went in six months earlier, it's awkward of course but the inability for anyone to come up with small talk seems tremendously unnatural.

Mostly it's Falk's and Rowlands' uncompromising performances that make up for this. The final scenes of the film are brutal and brilliant as we watch a strange, dangerous see-saw of madness.

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