Reviews and notes
I think we're just reporters, all of us basically. And the story like A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is not newsworthy really, it's not Watergate, it's not war, it's a man and a woman relationship, which is always interesting to me."
- John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes' A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
, like its main character, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is paradoxically both fuzzy and clear. stifling and liberating. Glimpses of Mabel's character reveal startling and liberating moments of lucidity that tell precisely how she is the victim of her money problems and her cramped role as housewife and mother. Yet, there are times watching Mabel perform under the influences, that we become as frustrated as she. Constricted by the economic pressures as they apply to her lifestyle, weighed down by her role-playing husband, and even dominated by her only "escape" - her children - Mabel spends her time reacting rather than acting.
The film opens as Mabel sends her three kids away with her mother (Lady Rowlands) for a few days. so that she and her husband Nick (Peter Falk) can have some time by themselves. Nick works for the city water company and it becomes clear, early on, that their economic class is the first important "influence."
Unable to take vacations in Las Vegas or get sitters for the kids, the Longhettis don't get away from the house much. Mabel, moreover, is stuck in the house all day while Nick works. Within this arrangement, privacy becomes a precious commodity: they have to sleep in the dining room on a convertible couch. (Mabel is never very far from the kitchen.) It is simple economics again, when Nick makes a decision to commit Mabel to a public institution after she has a breakdown. The institution is obviously so far away that he and the kids can't visit her for the six months she's hospitalized. Much the same situation exists in Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home
, where a working class family is forced to separate and this leads inexorably to its disintegration. Mabel, unlike Cathy, doesn't lose her children and they form the second "influence" she's under.
Like Cathy and another contemporary woman, Guiliana in Red Desert
, Mabel is lonely, frightened and egoless, finding comfort and meaning only when she's with her children. In Red Desert
's only true-color sequence, for example, Guiliana tells her son a bedtime story, rich in romanticized security. For Mabel, improvising a Swan Lake ballet with a bunch of kids serves the same purpose. Her children, unlike anyone else in the film, operate only by their instincts and perhaps understand her best. Later in the film, after Mabel returns home from the institution, she freaks out and starts fighting with Nick. The kids come to her rescue (quite improvisationally, according to Cassavetes) and tell "Dad" to leave "Mom" alone. As they try to protect her, Mabel draws strength from their simple acceptance of her. But this "influence" is also destructive. For Mabel has lowered herself to their level and has learned a childish method of communication from them. It is a method that works well enough with the kids, but it is useless when she tries to communicate with anyone over the age of 10. Not thinking of herself as a functioning adult, Mabel relies on the same repertoire of kooky gestures - "pffts", "pows", and finger jabbings - when she talks to Nick. It's the only language she knows, poor little girl!
But it isn't working. Mabel is somewhere in her thirties and she's falling apart and she knows it. Under the third and most pressing "influence", her husband Nick's, Mabel suffers most. "I can be anything you want," she desperately tells him. It's a complicated relationship, for she is asking Nick to relieve her of the responsibility of deciding who she should be, but she already knows what he wants her to be - a good little housewife and mother - and, even worse, that's what she wants herself to be. Mabel is caught in a terrible bind. Nick is not any better off than she is in articulating his feelings and needs, so the "question" remains unanswered for them both. It's easy, however, to sympathize with Nick, in spite of his macho, since he tries within the limits of his role to alleviate the situation. He goes through the motions of playing "man of the house", but it's not enough. He can't help Mabel, but he does succeed in getting through to the children. In the only family scene while Mabel is hospitalized, Nick insists on taking the kids to the beach. The sky is grey and the water looks cold, but Nick has made his decision. "When I'm the father, nobody gets pneumonia!" He carries the kids back and forth on the sand like so much cement, and in the pick-up truck riding home, they all guzzle beer. Nick fumbles awkwardly with the children, but it's evident that there's a great deal of love and feeling. As they reel on the front lawn, no one mentions Mabel, but one can feel the void she has left.
This affection is revealed throughout the film in the finely detailed map of family unity and love that underlies and contrasts with Nick's callousness and Mabel's apathy. Moreover, it gives the film its only sense of optimism for the future of the Longhettis. In the rhythms of the film (the rhythms of a good soap- opera) Cassavetes affirms the possibility for the survival of a nuclear family. Mabel - like Nick - is under a hell of a lot of destructive pressure from the "influences", but somehow she manages to survive with the muddling help of her family. The horrifying thing about all of Cassavetes' films (A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
above all) is how emotionally draining they are. His characters are frighteningly self-destructive, but his actors always manage to give them a strength and fullness of life that lets them survive. At the end of the film, Mabel and family are united again. She's not much better off, but she's no worse off (and we feel that her family will protect her. What other American filmmaker attempts to do that
? Susan Schenker, Take One, March 1975.
Weblink: Review by Roger Ebert
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