Our month long series featuring the films of John Cassavetes kicks off Friday with one of his best films, Woman Under the Influence – the first of five, all presented on 35mm. The following review is by Trylon volunteer David Berglund, who writes about the movies with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, at their Movie Matrimony blog.
Hollywood generally treats the topic of mental illness with a saccharine filter, applauding goodly protagonists of simple morality tales who are filled with so much gosh-darned altruism that they can’t help but step up to the plate and joyfully address a burden neglected by so many. John Cassavetes, a man whose life work was seemingly to rebuff the wiles of the film industry, didn’t buy into any of that trash. What he recognized, and what his masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence so affectingly communicates, is that those who suffer from mental instability are many times no more screwed up than the rest of us – they just show their neuroses in a more unruly and socially unacceptable fashion.
The film finds its narrative center in the relationship of Nick and Mabel (all-in performances from Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands) as the goodhearted Nick grows weary with his wife’s increasingly erratic behavior. Unlike the spotless saviors of many Hollywood offerings, he is short-tempered and unsure. When he does take action to address his wife’s behavior, it is desperate and reactionary. Yet, while Nick is not a saint, he is also not a villain. Because the film so effectively displays the frustrations of family life with mental illness and viewers share with him the film’s harrowing events, his choices are understandable and there is no room to look down on him from a moral high ground. Unlike Hollywood, Cassavetes understood that life rarely presents perfect solutions, and many times leaves only a choice to minimize pain.
The film, however, is not entirely this glum. Cassavetes takes care to show in intimate moments why Nick and Mabel fell in love. Aided by a jaw-dropping performance from Rowlands, we see in Mabel a deep affection for her family, and a good-hearted, though socially inept, sense of hospitality. She truly does care for her family, and we join her in lamenting her inability to acceptably fulfill her motherly duties. Ever the progressive, there is a sense that Cassavetes is arguing her actions are perhaps not so dangerous, but rather simply misalign with cultural standards. Maybe what is insane is not Mabel, but the fact that culture frowns on her eccentricity. In the end, Cassavetes leaves us with an idea of unmistakable beauty –that marriage, though unavoidably flawed, need not justify itself by the world’s lofty standards, but spouses should simply look inward to find joy and strength wherever possible in the comfort and commitment of the equally broken person sleeping next to them.
Woman Under the Influence (1974) written and directed by John Cassavetes, starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk screens from 35mm September 6-8, Friday and Saturday at 7:00 pm, and Sunday at 5:00 pm & 8:00 pm. Advance tickets available at trylon.org.