A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
ART FILM OF THE WEEK
Legendary father of independent film John Cassavetes spent two years trying to raise funds for what is now considered his greatest work. Refusing studio support, as the system would have mutilated his film, he borrowed money and mortgaged his house to get the movie made. He then carried around reels of the film, theater to theater, hoping to get a venue that would show his work, after no distributor would take the film.
Finally, his project achieved deserved success—with a little help from his former buddy-cum-backstabber Marty Scorsese—and the film was shown, then vindicated by being nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Actress. The brilliant Gena Rowlands had been the one who suggested to hubby John—who originally conceptualized the project as a stage play—that the project should be a film, realizing that the originally intended stage theater version would have been impossible for any actress to perform night after night.
The musical score is a dream come true from heaven, easily among cinema’s greatest, with everything from grandiose orchestral opera to hum-along leit-motif lyricism. Ravenously improvised in every way, the film establishes roles for nearly everyone in the Cassavetes family.
Stock actor Peter Falk’s Nick Longhetti promises his wife, Rowland’s Mabel Longhetti, a date, and when it falls through, she takes the news hard. So hard that she goes out alone and picks up a total stranger. Constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her schizophrenia is a roller coaster of highs and lows over unexpected moment to moment. The palpable potential for cheating on her husband ignites her bout of insanity.
Later, the gang of construction workers who work with Nick come home after an all-nighter. Mabel is awkward when meeting them. The tension in the room between Mabel and the others is a thick fog of emotions. Close-ups are often put to the task of capturing meticulous nuances of improvised characterizations, as it seems as though the non-professional actors playing the parts of Nick’s co-workers are truly disquieted by Mabel/Rowlands.
Throughout the film, dialogue is natural, free-flowing, and realistic. When Mabel loses herself in insanity, she is perceived as dangerous as evidenced in a climactic scene in which she loses control of her household overrun with party favors, toys, naked children, and a particularly dowdy man who doesn’t take to her strange manner kindly.
She is committed, with reluctance, to a mental hospital. In her absence is a wave of lost despair and isolation for Falk’s Nick, raising his children without their mother in anxiety and dread.
The sequence following Mabel’s return from the hospital is more terrifying than any scene previous. Her trip is ineffective to her sanity, as soon after she attempts suicide.
Cassavetes probes the subjective depths of Gena Rowland’s subconscious, and in this film, we get a profound sense that he plays for keeps throughout—wife or no. All of the multitude of feelings, thoughts and emotions provoked by the writer-director are a life-altering experience, well worth his defiance of the seemingly impossible.