A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

Nobody films an argument like John Cassavetes. His characters clash with such intensity it feels like the camera lens could burst from the force. A Woman Under the Influence, an exhausting and intimate family drama which runs a whopping 2 hours 30 minutes, feels like one long, ferocious quarrel between those who love one another but can’t find a breakthrough to understanding. Mabel (Gena Rowlands), a spry and loving housewife, also happens to be mad, crazy to the max in a kind of childish and simple way. Her husband Nick (Peter Falk), a hardworking blue collar type with a short temper, genuinely loves Mabel and their three children, even though the situation drives him a little crazy as well. With his beautifully crisp hand held camera, Cassavetes follows Mabel’s downward spiral, then jumps six months to her first night back from the institution where she has received shock therapy. Will the treatment make a difference, or does her cure lie in the hands of Nick and her family?A Woman Under the Influence becomes a referee of sorts, staying with these embattled souls who try to help one another even when each victory is disturbed by two defeats. Mabel and Nick fight to keep their sanity and family together, but the story reveals more about the process of marriage than mental illness. Also, the title could refer to a number of pressures put on Mabel – to be sane, a caring mother, or a devoted wife. We’re never sure where the madness comes from, and it doesn’t matter to Cassavetes. He wants to dissect how the family deals with the resulting conflicts. A Woman Under the Influence is one of those films which you can’t live without, but are afraid to revisit since the experience is so draining. On an aside, I’m convinced 1974 could be the greatest year for female acting ever – besides Rowlands’ landmark performance, Martin Scorsese unveiled the equally amazing Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. What a year.

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