My younger son, The Peacemaker, is really into classic films. He is a budding filmmaker himself. He has subscribed to a website by which he can access old movies that aren’t readily available on other sources. We’ve watched numerous films from all over the world and of varying genres and spanning decades. We recently watched ‘A Woman Under the Influence,’ written and directed by the late John Cassavetes and starring his wife, one of my favorites, Gena Rowlands (she reminds me of my Swedish grandma). Peter Falk plays her blue collar husband. They have three small children. I’m not sure how to explain the movie. It’s from 1974, about a woman who seems to be suffering from some sort of anxiety disorder. At first she appears to potentially be an alcoholic, but that doesn’t pan out. In the first scenes of the movie, her mother (played by Gena Rowland’s actual mother Lady Rowlands) has arrived to take the children so Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and her husband Nick (Peter Falk) can enjoy an evening alone. Right off it’s obvious that Mabel has some anxiety and nervous energy. Later she receives a phone call from her husband (a city worker) saying there has been an emergency and he won’t be home for some time. Mabel proceeds to go off to a bar, drink, pick up a stranger and bring him back to her bed. I just super simplified an incredibly elaborate and frustrating portion of the movie because there is no way I could describe it here… and no, Mabel, that’s not okay. Nick ends up arriving home early the next morning and with him he brings about a dozen of his workers and Mabel is expected to make them a meal. Apparently spaghetti is her speciality. Mabel is often childlike, she wants to dance and flirt and have her kind of fun, which is embarrassing to her hot-headed husband. The movie can be intense and very uncomfortable. Nick slaps Mabel in the face a few times. He belittles her, he ignores her, he doesn’t like the way she acts in front of other people, but he seems okay with it when they are alone. Mixed messages. Mabel just wants to take care of her children (often by acting like a child herself) but if she has a mental disorder, it is difficult to put a name to it. The title of the film is, ‘A Woman Under the Influence.’ So under the influence of what?
It is obvious to me pretty quickly that Mabel is under the influence of her abusive husband. He doesn’t come home when he is supposed to and when he does come home (for their romantic night) it is the next morning and he brings with him a bunch of dirty, hungry men. He doesn’t like the way she behaves and he belittles her in front of the men. He slaps her across the face, he pushes her, he locks HER up in a mental institution. He is incredibly insensitive and the intensity of the film for me comes from understanding how desperately she just wants to be with him, the man she fell in love with, not the man he has become because he has surely become a violent man who cares more about what others think than what his wife needs. He disregards her, gas lights her, and is violent towards her. I read some of the online reviews and a lot of people seem to think she is mentally ill. It is clear that she desperately loves her children. Her mother in law (played by John Cassavetes actual mother–interesting) instigates having Mabel locked up. Nick is a coward and a bully and allows his mother to manipulate him and the situation. I don’t believe Mabel is mentally ill at all. I think she never learned how to live without a man. In a couple scenes Mabel desperately looks to her father for guidance and for understanding, but he is clueless to her needs.
Although the reviews for this film are overwhelmingly positive, some reviewers on IMDB criticize John Cassavetes for being self indulgent and re-living his own life in his films (ala Woody Allen) to the detriment of the audience and the view-ability of his works. I completely disagree. In Roger Ebert’s review of the movie he states, “Because his work felt so fresh, it was assumed that Cassavetes was an improvisational filmmaker. Not true. He was the writer of his films, but because he based their stories on his own emotional experience, and because his actors were family or friends, his world felt spontaneous. There was never the arc of a plot, but the terror of free-fall. He knew that in life you do not often improvise, but play a character who has been carefully rehearsed for a lifetime.” A character who has been carefully rehearsed for a lifetime. Thought provoking and perhaps scarily accurate.
Asked if he did any research into mental illness or nervous breakdowns when he wrote the film in an interview included on the Criterion Blu-ray, Cassavetes said, “No, because I don’t think it’s about that. I’m half crazy myself, and I think almost everyone is verging on some kind of insanity. I believe very strongly that all women who are married for any length of time—and if they love their husbands—they don’t have any place to put their emotions, and that can drive them crazy … This particular woman, I don’t think she’s crazy … I think she’s just frustrated beyond belief. More than being crazy, I think she’s just socially inept.” (mentalfloss.com)
I think Mabel’s issues were a little deeper than merely being socially inept (realizing I am critiquing the actual writer and filmmaker here, ha). Her behavior was caused by the behavior of those around her and she merely did not have the coping skills to manage. I think she has a severe case of social anxiety brought on by abuse from her husband and others around her. She relates to and on the level of her children. There is a heartbreaking scene, after returning from the mental institution, between Mabel and her young daughter. It is a brilliant scene. You can see the brokenness and fear in them both.
I’m not sure I could have fully absorbed this film before discovery. After discovery I suffered tremendously with fear and anxiety, amongst other things. I didn’t want to leave the house. I was frightened, I felt like I was going insane. My husband did that to me. Yeah, sure, we are all responsible for our own behavior, however, trauma, stress and anxiety caused by a sudden and catastrophic event, or abuse over time, can leave us with an inability to control our emotions and our thoughts. The brain is a powerful organ, sometimes it shuts down for our own protection. Sometimes we don’t have the ability or desire to act like an adult anymore. I had to experience this for myself to know how real it is. Nearly four years ago, there was talk of sending me away. Even typing that makes be go, what? I self harmed so therefore I was a danger to myself and others? What the actual fuck? Oh yeah, and blog followers stopped following me… that was weird. Anyway, my husband was a danger to himself and everyone around him. Years of lies and betrayal led me to that place where I couldn’t function as an adult. Perhaps if my children had been small, like Mabel’s, I would have climbed back into a childlike state and I would have thrown parties where we all dressed up in costumes and no one had to be the parent, the adult, because being an adult is heartbreaking some days. But not wanting to live in a world full of hurtful people does not make me (or Mabel) mentally ill, it makes us sane!